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TIFF 2016: Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a lean, mean, gun-slinging machine

The Midnight Madness program kicked off in a hail of bullets and one-liners.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smileyin Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire
Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley star in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire
Rook Films/Protagonist Pictures

Most of the media’s eyes were on Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven as the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival got underway Thursday night, thanks to Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington strutting the red carpet. But another important event was underway on the other side of town: the kickoff of the festival’s acclaimed Midnight Madness program.

Over the years, Toronto’s late-night program has either premiered or given a North American debut to genre movies such as The Host, Hostel, and Saw, as well as genre-skewing comedies like What We Do In Shadows and Borat.

In recent years, director Ben Wheatley has become a favorite on the yearly Madness slate, with films like 2011’s Kill List and the 2012 horror anthology The ABCs of Death. After disappointing with the messy dystopian drama High-Rise last year, the prolific Brit is back with his first true action flick, Free Fire.

Free Fire is basically an excuse for one epic gunfight

The film’s setup is quite simple, even if there are a ton of participants involved. A group of IRA members led by Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) are in the US to secure an illegal shipment of rifles to bring back to Ireland. (The movie supposedly takes place in Boston, but any references to that are fleeting.) Two Americans are brokering the deal: Ord (Armie Hammer, having a blast) and Justine (Brie Larson, winding up one epic eyeroll after another).

The guns are in the hands of Vernon (Sharlto Copley, keeping his native South African accent for comic relief) and Martin (scene stealer Babou Ceesay). The swap is going down in an abandoned factory that is out of earshot, to allow the merchandise to be tested if necessary (as if that was ever a question).

In theory, this should be quick and painless — except two underlings involved on both sides have a rowdy history. Viewers learn early on that the not-so bright Stevo (Sam Riley) is already a pain in Chris and Frank’s asses. With the arrival of Vernon’s associate Harry (Jack Reynor, making everyone forget he was ever in a Transformers movie), things escalate quickly. The moment both sides have to keep these two hotheads from going after each other, it’s clear someone is going to start shooting, and soon. And that’s pretty much the whole point of the movie.

Brie Larson in Free Fire
Brie Larson in Free Fire.
Rook Films/Protagonist Pictures

A lean hour and 26 minutes before credits, Free Fire is basically an excuse for Wheatley and longtime collaborator and cinematographer Laurie Rose to execute a massive shootout in the factory. It helps that the gunfight can go for a while, since the locale is brightly lit and there are a ton of random cement blocks lying around for the shooters to hide behind.

Oh, and did I mention that most of this crew aren’t precision gunslingers? That’s wonderfully convenient, as within minutes, every participant is nicked or has a minor wound somewhere or another. It’s enough of an injury to piss ’em off, but it inspires more jokes rather than realistic tears. (Hey, guns were fun in the good ol’ days everyone!)

The specter of Quentin Tarantino hangs heavy over this film

In the official studio-supplied production notes, Wheatley, who also serves as the movie’s editor, says he was inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s films, and notably the editing in thrillers such as The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Peckinpah’s a fine filmmaker to emulate, except there’s a filmmaking giant who has already fashioned a legendary career partially off of Peckinpah’s influences: Quentin Tarantino.

And indeed, Free Fall’s cast of quirky characters, stark violence, and dark comedy make it actually feel more like one of the numerous Tarantino rip-offs from the ’90s than an homage to ’70s cinema. In fact, if Wheatley had set his film in the former decade, enough time has passed that a direct Tarantino nod might seem more progressive in 2016. Instead, it feels familiar for all the wrong reasons.

The genre movie press has adored Wheatley over the years, and it’s not hard to see why. With films like Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, he brought what seemed like a more artful eye and a genuinely smart perspective to thriller and action tropes. After getting over his head with High-Rise (have I mentioned how bad that film was yet?), Free Fire is at least a step in a more entertaining direction.

Sure, too many of the jokes fall flat, and Larson is criminally underutilized; but Reynor and Hammer are the film’s secret weapons, spinning weak one-liners into charismatic winners time and time again. For a Midnight Madness movie, you can’t ask for much better than that.

Free Fire is expected to hit theaters sometime in 2017.

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