1970s Boston, and Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) arrange to buy guns from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) in a deal set up by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). But an old grudge between two participants leads to a gun battle.
The most prolific and one of the most proficient filmmakers to come out of the UK in the last decade, Ben Wheatley has already proved himself across horror, thriller and whatever genre High Rise was (period sci-fi psycho-drama?). Now he moves to America — not literally; he’s still shooting in Brighton – and establishes himself as an action director as well. Surely a nihilistic rom-com is next.
Wheatley’s economy of storytelling is impressive here. There are ten key characters and at least four groups in this story of an arms deal gone wrong, but their personalities and relationships are so briskly established that, when the bullets start flying twenty minutes in, we can predict who each person will target or protect. Or – this being Wheatley – we think we can. Comparisons to Reservoir Dogs are probably inevitable given the warehouse setting, copious firearms and endlessly quotable script, but this is a sleeker and more violent film (though perhaps less sadistic).
The story opens on a couple of Bostonian ne’er-do-wells, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). Stevo is bruised and sore after some sort of brawl the night before, but they’ve been hired by visiting Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) as muscle at an exchange of arms for cash, so Bernie holds him in line. The Irish pair are presumably Republican terrorists, but among this crowd, terrorists are at the more sympathetic end of the spectrum – particularly given Murphy’s shy flirtations with Brie Larson’s Justine, the fixer who has introduced the parties to this deal.
Justine’s counterpart is Ord (Armie Hammer), a nattily-dressed psychopath so calm he’s almost horizontal, and the arms dealer is Sharlto Copley’s Vernon. A peacocking braggart and obnoxious pervert in a bespoke suit, Copley commits utterly to his cringeing attempts to flirt with Justine and threatens to run away with the film. But instead, two supporting participants discover a standing grudge and a fight breaks out. Soon the air is filled with bullets – call it Chekhov’s arms cache – and everyone is nursing at least one wound.
"Unlike the familiar American slugfests, this has surprises."
The hour of gunfighting that follows isn’t quite as strong as Wheatley’s previous films. While he and co-writer Amy Jump do a miraculously good job of shifting up the pace regularly, there’s still a mid-film lag where the sniping threatens to become monotonous. And after a strong first half, it inches imperceptibly to its crescendo, a pay-off not quite as leftfield as his other work.
Still, unlike the familiar American slugfests, this has surprises. There are moments where everyone tries to step back from the brink of mutually assured destruction, and pauses where they look for an exit strategy. What’s more, these gunshots really hurt. A wound to the leg leaves people crawling, not running slightly more slowly like most action heroes. By the third act most of the survivors are on their bellies, grasping desperately at weapons only just out of reach. It’s astonishing how novel that seems.
Wheatley continues an unbroken run of quality, helped by a great cast and a startlingly effective premise. This is seriously cool, stuffed with great dialogue and riddled with bullets.