Ben Wheatley is fast becoming a director whose work is simply a must see occasion. Whether it is a haunting success (The Kill List – this writer’s personal favourite Wheatley offering so far) or a far reaching stumble (the sadly pretentious High Rise), you feel compelled to see what Wheatley has come up with next on the big screen. In the case of his latest (Martin Scorsese exec produced) film, Free Fire, Wheatley strips down the plot to one basic – but no less ambitious – idea. A movie that consists almost entirely of a shootout! It sounds crazy, it sounds unattainable, it sounds frantic, in a way it is all three of those things but my goodness is it a sight to see.
The simplistic plot is of course the gateway to an array of themes in which retro male machismo clashes and results in pure chaos. Free Fire is a film about the futility of ego, vanity and greed and really does show that crime ultimately doesn’t pay. The central deal is between IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) & Frank (Michael Smiley) and arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), with the whole thing overseen by Ord (Armie Hammer) and intermediary Justine (Brie Larson). From the off, all sides (and their accomplices) bring their own tensions into the volatile equation with drug using Stevo (Sam Riley) – a relation of Frank- being the catalyst that initiates the bullet fraying madness. This is around 27 minutes in and from that set-up onwards, Wheatley and Amy Jump’s screenplay becomes a visceral, loud and anarchic caper, in all the best possible ways, chock full of throwback cool, darkly comic moments and character bravado. True, the prolonged gun battle narrative does become a touch convoluted at times, a mid-way idea involving an unexpected third party is never coherently addressed, but at no point does the film lose its way.
The era is never actually stated but is blatantly obvious in the sublime style, the (sparingly used) soundtrack and the immaculate costumes (almost characters in themselves), which exude ‘70s swagger. The film is effortlessly fun and even in some of the messier moments (Babou Ceesay’s Martin going all zombie for a couple of minutes), the film always feels to have high levels of adrenaline pumping. The all guns blazing action is expertly staged, the confined setting evocative of the the broken and unpleasant nature of the people involved in the conflict and the dialogue is often very humorous (Vernon’s money obsessing in times of death and Ord’s straight faced matter-of-factness particularly works a treat), albeit – at points – some lines are lost in the eardrum bleeding blasting and violence. However Wheatley sticks to his concept and never lets up or gives up, creating a film that is like Roman Polanski’s Carnage but with guns!
The cast all have an absolute ball in their respective roles too. Murphy is the closest the film gets to a hero, as his performance does have a touch of humanity to it, despite his criminality. Meanwhile Copley is brilliant as the rather mad (when is he not) but image conscious Vernon, while Hammer is incredible as the smug, tough and oh so vane Ord. Brie Larson also excels as Justine, as she ultimately cuts away at the fellas posturing and the eras gender politics, to play a smarter game. There is also strong support from Sam Riley, Michael Smiley and Jack Reynor. Some characters do feel a little along for the ride and the nature of the concept means that deep development is difficult to fully achieve but everyone fits into place like one big bloody jigsaw puzzle and this work of cinema is wholly enjoyable from start to finish in a big part because of the A-game everyone brings to it.
Free Fire is arguably Wheatley’s most accessible offering yet, and considering how unusual, thrilling and potentially divisive this film still is, that shows just how crazily inventive, deranged and darkly genius his work can be. Target this one as soon as you can.