Ben Wheatley is, for my money, one of the most interesting filmmakers to come out of the UK in the past 10 years. In what appears to be a bid to tackle as many genres as he can in his first decade directing features, Wheatley has turned his hand to action with his latest venture Free Fire.
Free Fire follows the events of an arms deal taking place in late 1970s Boston between IRA operatives and a South African gun runner. In one corner is Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (regular Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley) who are planning to take some M16 rifles back to Ireland with the assistance of paid for muscle Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Frank’s brother-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley). In the other corner is sleazy arms dealer Vernon (a shoulder pad sporting Sharlto Copley) his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay), their hired goon Gordon (Noah Taylor) and driver Harry (Jack Reynor). Thrown in the middle are negotiators Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). The exchange goes south in rather spectacular fashion as everyone takes up arms to fight for no reason other than to protect their own pride.
Free Fire is certainly Wheatley’s most accessible film to date, in fact its relative simplicity is one of Free Fire’s biggest strengths. There’s no huge set up to be made and only a couple of twists to keep the story moving, Free Fire does its best to get our characters to their destination so we can watch the chaos unfold with unbridled glee.
Make no mistake, chaos is the word. The first shot lands in slow motion and is the flashpoint for everything that comes after. Firing indiscriminately at all and sundry, the action is best summed up when one character proclaims mid-skirmish “I forgot whose side I’m on”. Characters limp and crawl across the floor of the former factory that serves as the locale for the entire hour and a half run time. The action is dusty and dirty and when bullets find a target the impacts look genuinely painful.
Speaking of looks, Free Fire has been shot beautifully by cinematographer Laurie Rose. A stylish kaleidoscope of teal, gold and burgundy, once proceedings turn sour everything hits the floor and Free Fire takes on the aesthetic of a war film with the camera swooping around the abandoned warehouse like a battlefield. Considering the disarray on screen, it’s shot in such a way that you never feel disorientated or confused as to who is where; it’s a small thing but when this many bullets are flying it’s a godsend.
With such a lot of violence it’s a good job the script – that Wheatley co-wrote with Amy Jump – leaves a lot of room for laughs. Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of the situation (everyone could quite easily agree to down weapons and walk away at any time). the dialogue establishes the characters so quickly that we have plenty of time to enjoy the ensuing wisecracks delivered by a cast that are giving it their all.
Jack Reynor continues his trend of donning a wig and giving a scene stealing performance (see also: Sing Street) as Harry, who gets some of the film’s biggest guffaws. Cillian Murphy does a great job of creating sympathy for a character who’s doing an illegal arms deal, Sharlto Copley hams it up in glorious fashion as germphobic dodgy dealer Vern and Brie Larson makes gutsy work of her little screen time. But it’s Armie Hammer’s Ord who runs away with the movie. He is psychotically cool throughout the whole ordeal and fires off the one liners as freely as he dispenses his ammunition.
Free Fire feels like a director blowing off steam and if that’s what Wheatley’s doing, I don’t blame him. Wheatley’s films have always been multi-layered, genre bending affairs so something as straight forward and B-movie inspired as Free Fire feels like a huge, bullet strewn release.
Free Fire is about as pure an action film as it is possible to make. Ben Wheatley taps into a vein of callous humour to bring us a 90 minute bloodbath that does not let up. If you don’t mind indulging in a little schadenfreude, Free Fire is an absolute hoot. There is no great take away here, except maybe that guns don’t kill people, but put those guns in the hands of a dozen narcissists and they’ll give it a good go.
Free Fire is out in cinemas on Friday 31st March.