17 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part IV: Free Fire

Although Armie Hammer appears in both Nocturnal Animals, which I saw on Friday night, and Free Fire, which was last night's BFI London Film Festival closing night gala, the two films have little else in common. It's a sign, perhaps, of Hammer's versatility, and I enjoyed them both a great deal.

Free Fire is the latest film from Ben Wheatley and if you don't like movies that involve a lot of blood, violence and swearing, it probably won't be your cup of tea. However, the 90-minute shoot-'em-up, which unfolds entirely inside a warehouse near Boston in the 1970s, is tightly edited, thrilling and, frankly, hilarious.

The set-up is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and the plot is thus: Justine (Brie Larson) arranges for ne'er-do-wells Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vern (Sharlto Copley — pictured in my second red carpet snap above) to sell some weapons to Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy). Both gangs show up at a disused warehouse and before they have even got to the stage of trying to screw one another over, gunfire breaks out between two of the more junior gang members (Sam Riley and Jack Reynor). Before long, it's a full-on bloodbath and, given the number of bullet wounds within the first 20 minutes, I did wonder whether any of the characters would live to see the halfway point of the film.

There are all sorts of surprises and betrayals along the way. Will anyone end up with the suitcase full of dosh? Will anyone even survive? Do we even want any of the characters to survive? These questions miss the point somewhat: no one has any particularly redeeming features and it doesn't matter who, if anyone, 'wins' because the film, in its dark and gory way, is hugely entertaining. It's also very stylish with a great soundtrack and some very '70s hairstyles and costumes.

The characters think that they are so smart, cool and hard, but in fact, Wheatley frequently shows them for the greedy, impulsive fools that they really are, and there is a strong sub-text of irony and self-knowing running throughout the film. There is a particularly brilliant use of John Denver's Annie's Song in one scene that in itself generated much laughter in the audience. Again and again (and not for the first time in a Ben Wheatley film), we have to ask ourselves: should we be enjoying this quite so much?

Copley, in particular, steals every scene he is in — so much so that I was desperately hoping for Vern to make it through to the end. Vern gets all the best lines, but Copley's comic timing and delivery are so impeccable that he turns even lines like, "redeem yourself and get that case", into something so funny that you question whether you should really be laughing quite so hysterically amid such intense violence. Hammer's performance is also very impressive. His character, Ord, originally seems to be the straight man, but as the film progresses, his funny, stoner side comes out too, and he too has wonderful comic timing. Murphy is as good as always, conveying so much with just a glance, and Larson, as the only woman in the film, more than holds her own against all the Y-chromosomes.

Last night, Wheatley was joined on stage at the Odeon Leicester Square by most of the cast (there are only 14 people in the cast) — Larson was the notable absence — and from the way they were jostling one another, laughing and taking selfies, you could tell how much fun they had making the film, which was actually filmed in Brighton. I won a ticket to the gala in the BFI ballot (having already spent all my pennies on three other tickets, I still felt I couldn't turn it down) and I was really glad to be in the front row. It was a great end to a wonderful London Film Festival experience.

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