Stars: Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor | Written by Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump | Directed by Ben Wheatley
From A Field in England to a High-Rise in London to a warehouse in a US dockland, you cannot say writer-director Ben Wheatley is predictable. Except Free Fire does feel distinctly familiar – comfortingly and enjoyably so, perhaps, but do not expect the unexpected. The heightened ‘70s aesthetic is retained from Wheatley’s previous film, instantly eliminating the issue of mobile phones, while also feeling like a throwback to a simpler cinematic time.
In what is more premise than plot, a bunch of idiotic guys and a slightly less idiotic woman (Brie Larson) descend upon a warehouse to complete a weapons deal. Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) leads the buyers; Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the unhinged dealer. Mediating the deal is Ord (Armie Hammer) – but despite his best efforts the whole thing is about to go south, thanks to a pre-existing dispute between the scuzzy Stevo (Sam Riley) and the raging Harry (Jack Reynor). An intricate web of personal duels develops, descending into farce as enemies and allies forget who’s meant to be shooting at whom.
One location and a whole bunch of guns: the stage is set for a 60-minute shootout, half of which is played out with bullets, the other half with words. The banter is coarse and often hilarious – “Redeem yourself!” Vernon cries, trying to inspire his failing troops to sacrifice – even if the script lacks the depth and intricacy of one very clear touchstone, Reservoir Dogs. But there’s enough silliness and enough ideas to sustain the lean runtime, all the way up to its fairly predictable ending.
The action is inelegant and sputtering, and that’s surely deliberate: Wheatley is delivering an anti-superhero anti-spectacle, where the moves are messy and painful, and men squeal in agony. Spatial awareness is further confounded by Wheatley’s love of the close-up. Lacking the sophisticated action and editing of John Wick is one thing, but Free Fire also lacks the creepy hyper-English sensibility of Wheatley’s earlier work. This feels like a diluted transition to Hollywood, which doesn’t play entirely to Wheatley’s or (co-writer) Amy Jump’s strengths.
That’s not to say it isn’t funny. There is a pumping vein of humorous one-liners (“I’m not dead, I’m just regrouping!”), and Jump and Wheatley have a knack for capturing relatable moments of minor pain – glass cuts, awkward falls, dust in the eyes – which lend the film an absurdist edge, constantly undermining the machismo and denying any sense of self-seriousness.
What to say about the performances? Other than they are suitably manic and sweaty. Copley stands out, chewing the single-location scenery, relishing his role as the mob wannabe whose ego is matched only by his cowardice. Cillian Murphy gets the ostensible hero part, insofar as he’s the one who wants to help the girl get away, and the only one who vaguely resembles a professional. At the other end of the spectrum is Riley’s Stevo, a punchbag before the cameras even roll, and a harbinger of chaos wherever he goes – sometimes all guns blazing, sometimes collapsing in a smack-fuelled stupor.
The diversity in the cast is conspicuous – practically every character hails from a different country – but there is probably nothing going on under the surface. Indeed, deliberately so. It’s as if Wheatley and Jump are cleansing their palate after the deeply allegorical High-Rise. By comparison, Free Fire couldn’t be more straightforward and accessible. It’s a stripped down, violent, efficient, joyful mess of a movie, handcrafted by one of the most exciting filmmaking teams in British cinema. I just hope that they don’t sail too far from the peculiarly British shores that have blessed us with weirder, more interesting films than this.
Free Fire is out in cinemas on 31st March 2017.