Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley – PHOTO: KERRY BROWN // COURTESY OF A24
Back in the early 1980s, while everyone enjoyed the good-rockin’ Pop vibes of the David Bowie hits “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance,” I couldn’t escape the brooding allure of an album track like “Ricochet,” where the Thin White Duke preached of the “Sound of thunder, sound of gold/Sound of the devil breaking parole.” This was a dark and sinister flipside, the soundtrack to an underground revolution, where the faithful would “turn the holy pictures so they face the wall.”
Free Fire, the latest film from director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise), is set a few years before Bowie’s smooth-criminal run, but it dwells in similar territory, capturing the desperation and the hair-trigger impulsivity of getting caught up in the ricochet.
We’re talking about running guns in Boston circa the late 1970s. A motley crew of Irish tough guys, led by brothers Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), want to buy a batch of weapons. They arrive at the scene of an exchange with some cheap muscle, including Stevo (Sam Riley), a strung out friend, and a contact named Justine (Brie Larson) helping to facilitate the deal. Handsome Ord (Armie Hammer), clothed in tailored duds and slinging barbed retorts, represents the gun faction, led by the not-so sharp Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his tight gang of ruffians.
Twenty to 25 years ago, a movie that placed these two opposing forces in an abandoned industrial setting with the tension dialed up way past the register would have been seen as an obvious Quentin Tarantino knockoff, a Reservoir Dogs clone.
But Wheatley isn’t as interested in the verbal finesse of Tarantino’s gutter poets. Instead, Free Fire is right at home in its dilapidated surroundings. Its cast of characters are odds and ends, worn and dirty tools to be picked up and employed when there’s nothing else handy.
The conflict kicks off in perfect ricochet-mode, once the main players enter the dark factory and finally settle on the terms of their deal. The money gets handed off and the guns are ready for loading, but one of Vernon’s goons recognizes Stevo from the night before, when he was spotted sexually assaulting an underage girl and given a swift beat down, although it apparently wasn’t enough to balance the scales. You have to marvel at the twisted code of ethics that guides such low-lifes.
Punches and curses volley back and forth, and inevitably guns are drawn, shots ring out and all hell breaks loose. The expectation might exist, in some version of this story, for Bowie’s mythic pronouncement about the glorious sounds of battle — the thunder and gold and the devil breaking parole — but not in Wheatley’s nightmarish dreamscape. Bullets pop and snap off concrete and steel, creating shards and clouds of dust that obscure sight lines and build into a fractured echo chamber of horrors.
And let’s not forget what happens when bullets actually pierce their fleshy targets, There are no simple and direct kill shots delivered. Legs get clipped, guts take lead and we watch death drag itself around the scene like a hungry and impaired predator in search of a meal.
So often, movies above criminals showcase the efficiency of the planning and execution, the otherworldly precision of the marksmen or the raw brutality of mortal combat. We revel at the genius of the violence on display, how it defines the characters and the moments.
Near the end of Bowie’s song, he returns to the “Sound of thunder, sound of gold/Sound of the devil breaking parole” and then screams, “Ricochet, it’s not the end of the world.” And maybe he’s right.
In stark contrast, Free Fire gathers an extended rogue’s gallery of characters and places them in a scenario that plays out like the firefight on the pier in The Usual Suspects if Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Verbal (Kevin Spacey) and the crew had been The Bad News Bears of criminals facing off against an equally inept assortment of rivals. The resulting ricochet here is a bloody mess that can’t be sorted out in the aftermath. Truth be told, I’m not even sure it makes complete sense while you’re watching it unfold, but there is delirious and primal freedom in the act of killing. (Opens Friday.) (R) Grade: B