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1970s Boston: Justine (Brie Larson), a mysterious American businesswoman and her wise-cracking associate, Ord (Armie Hammer), arrange a black-market weapons deal in a deserted warehouse between an IRA arms buyer named Chris (Cillian Murphy), and shifty South African gunrunner named Vernon (Sharlto Copley). What starts as a polite if uneasy exchange soon goes south when tensions escalate and shots are fired, quickly leading to a full-on battle royale where it’s every man (and woman) for themselves. (From A24’s official synopsis)

 Free Fire
In 2015, unpredictable British filmmaker Ben Wheatley broke away from his metaphysical and darkly comic indie horror stint to adapt J.G. Ballard’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ original novel, High-Rise. Following that comparatively large-scale production, he has opted to prove his low-stakes light-hearted action chops with an uncomplicated, down-n-dirty shoot-out called Free Fire. The concept behind Free Fire is utter simplicity, from the stripped-down narrative and streamlined characters, to its (nearly) solitary location and punchy, 90-minute runtime. Wheatley also infuses every frame with a ‘70s throwback mentality or at least the modern music video equivalent, as dictated by the disciples of Quentin Tarantino over the last two and a half decades. This can be quite forced at times, especially since Wheatley’s particular skillset rarely aligns with the hip hyperactivity of early Guy Ritchie movies. Soon enough, though, his skewed sense of humour overrides bumbling nostalgia trip and the film begins to pull itself together. What’s really important here is how efficiently Wheatley develops the suspense and choreographs the raw, bloody action. With the exception of occasionally underdeveloped geography (i.e. early in the fight, the characters are separated and Wheatley struggles to define their positions in the room), he delivers a impressive sense of impact and energy.

Once the shooting begins, it doesn’t really stop, so the problem becomes one of applying texture and momentum to a narrative that basically boils down to “guy shoots guy, repeat.” The screenplay, by Wheatley and his long-time collaborator/spouse Amy Jump, is straight to the point in order to showcase the action and performances, but also applies enough tonal change-ups to keep things interesting. Sometimes the mayhem is frightening, sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes it’s funny. All the while, the filmmakers maintain a sense of ironic tragedy, as no one (except for maybe Armie Hammer’s Ord), is particularly adept at these awkward war games. The effort is respectable and more fun to watch than the speed-ramped, CG-assisted chaos of Free Fire’s big-budget counterparts, but it isn’t entirely successful, because the lack of storytelling content and creative violence (the ‘van death’ is the only one that felt unexpected and laugh-worthy) wears thin as the film approaches its final act. The purposefully underdeveloped characters blend into an array of cannon fodder and its difficult to really care about the outcome of the elongated battle – though the high-calibre character-actor cast tends to sell their self-aware, smarmy one-liners (some of which I’m assuming they made up themselves) and cover the lack of character development.

 Free Fire

Video


Just like High-Rise, Free Fire appears to have been filmed on 35mm film, but was actually shot entirely on Arri Alexa XT digital cameras, using anamorphic lenses. The footage was then graded to appear film-like in an effort to match the look of the 1970s time period that the story takes place in. This 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is surprisingly gritty for a digital production, but also crystal clear and neatly separated when it counts. Cinematographer Laurie Rose was challenged to plan out a broad, yet detailed lighting scheme that would allow multiple cameras to capture the (at least implied) spontaneity of the action from almost any angle without anything important being lost in shadow. The effort pays off; however, the noir-quality darkness can push the HD image to its limit at times. Edges remain sharp and shapes delineated, even as Rose pulls the focus tight for dialogue scenes. The grit creates some minor step effects and low-level noise in darkened warm hues. The palette is mostly divided into oranges, reds, and browns with yellow highlights and cobalt shadows for contrast. These colours remain consistent throughout the entire film and rarely alter the quality of the well-maintained black levels.

Audio


Free Fire is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The mix alternates between warm, subtly echoed dialogue-driven scenes, richly blended music-driven scenes, and, of course, enormously loud shoot-outs. The guns themselves have personalities – some of them are booming and bassy, others are sharp and harsh – and exhibit a wide dynamic range. Additional effects are minimized mostly to incidental clicks & clacks that occasionally help to define the shape of the limited location, though directional effects tend to be limited to gunshots, ricochets, and off-camera dialogue. Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow’s rock/jazz-inspired original score is augmented with period-appropriate music. Some of this is blended into the aurally damp environment (like when it spouts from a van radio) and other sections are mixed to be the only sound on the track for dramatic impact.

 Free Fire

Extras


  • Commentary with director Ben Wheatley and cast members Cillian Murphy & Jack Reynor – This fun and fact-filled track is definitely led by Wheatley, who runs through the production process with a dry sense of humour, while the actors pipe-up with a few clarifications and anecdotes from the set. The whole thing devolves a bit into praising the other actors, but it remains amusing, nonetheless.
  • The Making of Free Fire (15:58, HD) – A fluffy, but well-made and relatively informative EPK that includes behind-the-scenes footage and cast & crew interviews.
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


Overall


Free Fire is a charming little experiment and respectful effort, even though it fails to completely deliver on its wonderfully simple concept. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as an extended promotional reel for director Ben Wheatley's action skills and we can expect something a bit more creative the next time around. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray looks great, despite the prevalently dark photography, sounds fantastic, and features a fun, though not always focused group commentary track.

 Free Fire

 Free Fire

 Free Fire

*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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