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Free Fire (2017)

Obsessive readers of the small print, having spotted that Edgar Wright was an executive producer of Ben Wheatley's "Sightseers" and drawn some conclusions about that film's intentions and wobbly rate of return, can go to town on "Free Fire" once the name of Martin Scorsese appears in the same capacity. It features a closed group of armed characters in a sealed location, a weapons deal that collapses in mistrust and sweary machismo, plus some ironic popular music on the soundtrack; so the director is hugging a certain strain of American crime story pretty tightly, at a time when that strain has become so naturalized as to have lost a lot of its virulence and surely all its surprise. Mr. Wheatley has a distinctive cinematic temperament, a very British high-altitude remove that on the domestic scene stands out so much that it might count as auteurist; but it isn't the right tool for all jobs.

The era is the 1970s, and the setting is Irish-American Boston; so the gang of criminals played by Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and others are weighed down by polyester and hair, although apparently not by the empty space between their ears. The actors mostly keep their own accents, since the weapons being transferred are headed in the direction of the Irish contingent for vague anti-British purposes; but in practice this means the spotlight is naturally drawn to Mr. Copley, whose Pretoria vowels can count as a weapon on their own when he wants. Once a disagreement breaks out, two separate factions of these numbskulls stop swapping insults and spend the bulk of the film shooting at each other from opposite sides of a warehouse, a logistical challenge which the filmmakers pass with flying colors. Two thirds of the film is separate groups of gunmen lying on their bellies behind pillars, emerging to take a potshot and then hiding again; but the sound-mixing and film editing never lose track of where they all are, even if the why and how are more shaky.

Comparisons with Quentin Tarantino and Walter Hill write themselves, but are instructive and pointless at the same time since Mr. Wheatley simply doesn't hold his characters in the same kind of affection as those (or most other) American directors do. As in several of his films, the humanity of the gang that couldn't shoot straight getting stuck in a jam doesn't stretch beyond a level needed to support whatever moment of splatter is approaching; and empathy is surplus to requirements. When Mr. Tarantino waits for an hour to pan across and reveal a character you have never seen before, it has some dramatic jolt, a sense that the powers of fate are devious and dire; here it seems a narrative dead-end, leading nowhere beyond the chance to use another available actor. A decent comparison might be Mr. Wheatley's own "Down Terrace," another group of dysfunctional outlaws gnawed apart by blackly comic mistrust and recrimination, a theme viewed there through the goggles of British social commentary but now tipped into the great American genre machine, which grinds much finer. Mr. Wheatley has said that "Free Fire" was originally temp-tracked with scores from 1970s American films such as "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," before the filmmakers agreed that music by the likes of David Shire and Don Ellis capsized this film completely, making suggestions that the material could hardly support – a revealing and surely accurate assessment. One glory of the American crime genre is that it can make doomed nobility look universal, but in the end that's because in those films some soul is involved. It can be dark, perverse or let you down in the end; but it's got to be in there somewhere.


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