Free Fire (2016)

2017 #105
Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Free Fire

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

Guys with guns

So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

More guys with guns

These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

4 out of 5

Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

Badass Brie

Spotlight (2015)

2016 #144
Tom McCarthy | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 2 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Best Director, Best Film Editing.



SpotlightThe most recent Best Picture Oscar winner tells of how the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism unit, the eponymous Spotlight team, exposed the widespread sexual abuse of children by the local Catholic Church — and, just as shockingly, the way the institution itself swept this under a rug for decades. As a film, this story is effectively a conspiracy thriller: a team of journalists expose a wide-reaching criminal cover-up within a respected and powerful institution. If it were fiction, you’d struggle to believe it, the scale of the conspiracy so vast that the very notion of it would be implausible. So it’s all the more astonishing — and horrifying — that it was real. And, as the closing title cards reveal, far larger than the Spotlight team realised even when they went to print.

There are many fascinating true stories that have produced merely adequate movies, so it’s something else again that transforms Spotlight into a Best Picture winner — albeit a somewhat controversial one, in that it came in a year when the top award went to one of three different films at the major awards (the others being The Revenant and The Big Short), rather than a consensus emerging as the various ceremonies all rewarded the same film (as usually happens, more or less); relatedly, it was the first Best Picture winner for over 60 years to only nab one other gong. More pertinently, doubts about the film’s deservingness stem from criticisms of its relatively plain directorial style, its focus on the plot rather than the characters within it, and its monomaniacal attention to the process of investigation rather than the thing being investigated.

In my opinion, the film’s storytelling would be better described as no-nonsense. It actually takes confidence to be this understated, I think. Tom McCarthy’s direction isn’t slickly shot and edited to make the story seem like a whizz-bang fast-paced thriller; nor is it affectedly artistic or indie, the kind of style this sort of low-to-mid-budget drama often resorts to nowadays. Talking around tablesInstead, it lets the story and the events speak for themselves, with the screenplay being the real powerhouse here. On that scale the directing isn’t even in second place. That’d be the performances, as the actors carry the delivery of information while still feeling like human beings pursuing an investigation, rather than mere narrators of what they discovered. McCarthy’s work is therefore the kind of helmsmanship that wouldn’t attract awards attention, except maybe by association with the film’s overall acclaim (he did get nominations, but the cynical side of me doubts awards bodies genuinely appreciated the qualities of what they were watching). Nonetheless, awards are not the be-all-and-end-all, and the low-impact style was surely the right way to go. This is a tale bigger than auteurist showboating, and McCarthy handles it with appropriate respect.

I think the perceived lack of characterisation for the journalists is due to similar reasons — both that the film has different fish to fry, and also that it goes about such business with greater subtlety. Personally, I think you come away with a really good sense of who these men and women are as people; at the very least, how they are in their work environment, which at the end of the day is where we’re observing them. This is accumulated through how they behave in interviews and meetings, how they react to developments and revelations, how they do their jobs. It’s good writing and good acting, because there are no scenes devoted to merely “exploring character” or whatever. There are allusions to their private lives without making them full-blown subplots, and that’s a good thing — this tale doesn’t need embellishing with a shoehorned romance or a failing marriage. That said, Walking down corridorsthis is also perhaps where the film’s only egregious bum note comes in: Ruffalo’s shouty speech about how they need to go to press now, which was naturally used across all the trailers and clips. It feels like that is precisely what that speech was designed for — that it was written, directed, and acted with the “here’s our big dramatic trailer moment” in mind. It’s not entirely out of character in context, but it is a bit much.

One reason it feels out of place is that the film perhaps hasn’t quite whipped up our fury at the situation to the same level. That’s not to say it’s soft on it — there are horrifying tales and facts related — but while the film is about historic Catholic abuse, it’s really about journalism. Other critics of the movie accuse it of telling the abuse story in a way that could be better covered through a documentary or reading a Wikipedia article, but I think that misses what makes Spotlight really tick. It’s the process the journalists go through — how they uncover the story as much as what they uncover — that the film is demonstrating for us. Sure, you can read a Wikipedia article to find out what they unearthed, but without them unearthing it in the first place there’d be no Wikipedia article to read. That’s what the film is really about. These events happened 15 years ago; the truth they outed has been a massive story ever since — that’s not something that needs fresh exposure (other than it never hurting to remind people). But as the world moves away from proper journalism, into the realm of amateur bloggers rehashing press releases and ‘professional’ organisations running endless clickbait listicles because that’s where the advertising revenue is, it’s a timely reminder that it’s this kind of proper, old-fashioned journalism that can expose massive, important issues; issues that you might think the police or legal system should expose, but which they’re sometimes (maybe even often) complicit in.

Talking at desksSo was it the best film of last year? Perhaps that depends what you look for in movies. As much as I think the understatement fits, I also think it’s what stops it from being as cinematically exciting as, say, the visually-driven hyper-kinetic storytelling of Fury Road. But to focus too much on the deservingness or otherwise of awards is to miss the point. Much like it doesn’t need flashy camerawork or editing, or diversions into the characters’ private lives, so Spotlight doesn’t need awards to make you pay attention. It’s a story about the importance of independent investigation, told in a strong but no-frills fashion that befits the weight of the material.

5 out of 5

Spotlight is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.