… to getting the guns out

We all know what the bullet deadliness quotient is, aye?

If not, here’s a helpful reminder.

“An action film establishes its own rules of gunplay. In some, every bullet is potentially lethal — even the old shot to the shoulder can look worryingly near to the upper-chest area. But in others, machine guns can seem the least deadly weapon known to man. To illustrate, at one end of the spectrum there’s your Tarantino movies: reputations aside, there’s not that much gunplay, so when somebody lets off a shot, it’s for real, and it’s usually fatal. High bullet-deadliness quotient. At the other end, there’s your John Woo movies: zillions of rounds goin’ off an’ the only thing they ever hit is glass. Low bullet-deadliness quotient. In a high BDQ film, if the baddie draws a bead on somebody, get ready for ketchup. In a low BDQ film, that’s just a bad day for the janitor. And both types are fine by me, as long as the rules are followed consistently.”

“But you can’t establish a high BDQ and then have a low-BDQ showdown at the end, that’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s what I’m saying. And you cannae establish a low BDQ then have the hero take oot the baddie wi’ wan shot while the air round about him fills up wi’ lead.”

‘One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night’, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999.

Warning: The rest of this post contains spoilers for Free Fire

Ben Wheatley’s never really stuck to the rules. And so his new film, Free Fire, manages to find a way of breaking the conventions of the much fabled bullet-deadliness quotient without becoming, as Brookmyre warns, a Renny Harlin film.

And it does so in the most befitting way possible. By making all its protagonists really, really rubbish at firing guns.

Of course, if they were good, accurate shots this would be an exceptionally short film — even shorter than it’s already economical 90 minutes running time. Barring a brief interlude on the Boston dockside, the entire film takes place in one building, and virtually one room, with less than a dozen people scattered around a crumbling factory, barely in cover, firing a variety of handguns and rifles at each other.

Yet Wheatley manages to cross that line between high and low BDQ rates without lurching into ridiculousness. Farce, yes, for Free Fire is undoubtedly his funniest film to date. But it manages to make sense of this middle ground, where lots of bullets are exchanged, and yet people don’t immediately get offed.  It sits in that hinterland between Woo and Tarantino, undermining any sense among the audience of ‘come on, how are these people not dead yet’ by making clear just how z-list these gunmen are.

Some of that is helped by having everyone suffer some kind of injury early on. Pretty much every character is shot in the leg by the end of the first exchange of fire. From the point of view of plot convenience it gives all the characters a good reason not to make a break for it. From a dramatic point of view, it adds an added sense of peril. The characters are all static. They’re vulnerable, scrambling in the dirt for any available cover. And as Armie Hammer’s Ord points out, they’ve around 90 minutes (convenient) before the various apparently minor wounds and bloodletting they’ve all suffered starts to be dangerous.

This incompetence is a character trait. Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer Vernon, Sam Riley’s cocky wannabe thug Stevo and Jack Reynor’s low-level henchman Harry are wannabes. They think they’re hard men, but they’re exceptionally crap at what they do, and that crapness extends to barely being able to hit a barn door with a blunderbuss.

No cheesy puns here

The more competent characters fare slightly better with their aim. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy, playing two IRA members looking to secure arms for their struggle, are more accurate, as are Babou Ceesay as Vernon’s cohort Martin and Brie Larson’s middle woman Justine. They’re people comfortable with guns and what they can do, as evidenced by Murphy’s Chris being able to recognise the type of gunfire pinning them down.

Armie Hammer’s broker Ord is clearly the most competent of the lot, but also clearly does not want to be dragged into the ensuing shitstorm, sitting it out, trying to keep the peace and smoking what look decidedly herbal roll-ups until things get personal, at which point we see his — and, by Wheatley’s account, Californian gun-owning Hammer’s own — abilities come to the fore.

Indeed, one sequence, with Ord clearing Vernon’s jammed pistol, was apparently improvised and entirely legit – gun-proficient Hammer fixing Copley’s prop firearm mid-scene, much to the surprise of the on-set armourers.

And that balance of competence allows the high/low BDQ split to function, even as characters increasingly begin to resemble Python’s Black Knight. The idiots can fire a tonne of bullets and barely wing each other. The pros are a bit more accurate, firing less shots and doing more damage.  About the thing that doesn’t make sense is where everyone keeps finding ammunition from.

That balance is necessary because Free Fire is, at its heart, a comedy. A black comedy, at times, but never less than amusing and at times — mainly whenever Copley’s given dialogue — laugh out loud funny. Wheatley describes it as being close to a Western, but it’s more like a Whitehall farce with crack and Armalites.  The most gratuitous on-screen deaths come in spite of gunfire, rather than because of it, and largely through idiocy and incompetence.

There’s still some of Wheatley’s trademark visual quirks — slow motion, POV shots and the continued use of Smiley – that we’ve seen deployed in everything from Down Terrace to his Doctor Who episodes, and a murky, concrete and rust palette that matches the rundown surroundings of the disused umbrella warehouse (marketing slogan: “we’ve got you covered”) where the shootout at the FU Corral takes place.

But more than the visual storytelling, this is a film where sound design is everything.  The first time a gun is fired hammers this point home perfectly. As Cillian Murphy’s character lets loose with an AR-15 assault rifle, the bang of each round wipes out any other sound on screen. Everyone looks in pain at the loud noise being sounded, repeatedly, at close quarters in a relatively confined space.

This is less a bullet-deadliness quotient than a bullet deafness quotient.

The sound of shouting and firing replaces the need for much of a score although the weird prog-jazz fusion created by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow does occasionally seep through the occasional reloading-inspired burst of silence.

From the eardrum-shattering rapport of gunfire to the conversations taking just off camera, overlapping with the action on screen, Free Fire needs to be seen if not in a cinema, then at the very least in a room with a damned good surround sound system.

For all it’s Hollywood friendly cast (although, as Smiley’s character points out, that’s Hollywood in Northern Ireland, not California), endorsement from executive producer Martin Scorsese – no stranger to 70s gangland shootouts himself – and larger budget as Wheatley’s reputation, bolstered by High Rise, continues to rise high, this still feels as British, as claustrophobic and as quirky as his previous works.

Wheatley’s doing a science fiction film next.  Is there a raygun deadliness quotient?

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