Free Fire, 2017.
Directed by Ben Wheatley.
Starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Michael Smiley.
1978, Boston, Massachusetts. Justine has brokered a meeting between two Irishmen and a gang selling them a stash of guns. But when shots are fired, a heart stopping game of survival ensues.
When damage to a seventies shoulder pad is considered more damaging than a bullet to the knee, you know you’re not in typical shootout territory.
An absolute blast in every sense of the word, Kill List, Sightseers and High-Rise director Ben Wheatley’s typically mischievous new movie Free Fire steers us away from the warped social realism of his earlier Brit-based offerings to take aim at the slicker template established by action genre masters. Fuse the claustrophobic and intense firefights of Ringo Lam or Sam Peckinpah (both noted influences on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, to which this has been inevitably compared) with the verbal rhythms of Mike Leigh, and one almost comes close to imagining what Free Fire is like. Add in a dash of John Woo outrageousness and the deal is sealed.
Co-written by Wheatley’s wife and regular writing partner Amy Jump and set entirely inside a cavernous, crumbling warehouse (Brighton standing in for Boston), one senses that he is revelling in his John Carpenter-esque limitations: as a director he sets the timer on this pressure-cooker environment, than sits back to watch it go off. When Justine (Brie Larson) brokers a deal between Irish mercenaries Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) and gun-runners Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vern (Sharlto Copley), all appears to go well. That is until Chris queries the make of the automatic weapons that Vern has brought to the deal, and a prior altercation between rivals Harry (Jack Reynor) and Stevo (Sam Riley) fires the starter pistol on a 90-minute fire fight that never lets up.
Given its influences it’s little surprise to learn that, aesthetically speaking, Free Fire is a step above, a streamlined semi-automatic compared to the more scattershot, raw, sub-machine approach of something like Kill List. Handsomely dressed in fifty shades of orange and ochre by Wheatley’s regular DP Laurie Rose it’s a film that revels in the garishness of its period, the eye-watering costumes sported by its scene-stealing cast of characters as vibrant as the incessant muzzle-fire that dots the narrative.
Make no mistake however, that joyously wicked Wheatley sense of humour is still firmly in place, albeit pitched less at the cruel register of his earlier films and more at the level of crowd-pleasing farce. (There are however a couple of moments that play to the stalls in typically wince-inducing, gory fashion.) Is it plausible that one person could absorb this many bullets? Frankly, who cares when you’re laughing this much? The potency of the international cast sings as loudly as the weapons that form the crux of the storyline, accents flying around as rapidly as spent shell casings. And draped over everything is the most twisted use of John Denver in recent memory, interweaving around Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s discreet, jazzy score as everything builds to a hysterical, go-for-broke crescendo.
Truthfully there isn’t a massive amount of character depth on offer, although it’s clear how much fun anyone is having. Larson’s Justine is the closest thing we have to a sympathetic figure, although that’s much of a muchness when one considers the reckless lack of loyalty displayed by everyone in the movie. Wheatley regular Smiley is terrific as the Irish-and-proud-of-it Frank, whose grizzled gravitas clashes with the younger loose cannons standing in his way. Finally discovering a vehicle for his brand of out-there eccentricity, District 9‘s Copley is an absolute hoot as Vern, possessed of the film’s most singular, perplexing accent whilst favouring cardboard body armour during times of great peril. And consolidating his superb turn in last year’s Sing Street, Jack Reynor adds another memorable portrayal to his resume as chief instigator Harry.
Is there anything of substance? Debatable. Really this is a filmmaker throwing off the shackles and inviting the audience to get down with a shot of pure, hilarious adrenaline. Never playing anything straight (a rib-tickling scrap between Murphy’s Chris and Hammer’s Ord brings up the difference between perfume and beard oil), Wheatley is simply honouring his cinematic heroes whilst demonstrating his increased confidence in the realms of ensemble handling, editing and music. Anyone looking for the unpredictable genre-hopping of Kill List or the deliriously nasty social expose of the divisive High-Rise may be disappointed. Anyone else looking for 90 minutes of sheer fun will be well served.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Sean Wilson is a journalist, nerd and soundtrack fan and can be found on Twitter here.