21st Aug2020

Rewind: ‘Free Fire’ Review

by Chris Thomas

In the latest in his series of Rewind reviews looking back at the career of writer/director Ben Wheatley, Chris takes a look at his 2017 film, Free Fire.

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

Ben Wheatley is one of my favourite directors working today. He combines an eye for natural, realistic social situations with an extraordinary ability to create not only straight up horror but also the texture of horror in the context of other genres. Whilst in previous Rewind columns I’ve gone back and re-watched Wheatley’s films Kill List and High Rise, with Free Fire I am watching the film for the very first time…

Free Fire is an action film and a black comedy. The premise is extremely simple. The IRA are looking to buy some M16s from an illegal arms dealer in an old factory and things go horribly wrong.

Free Fire (as with all Ben Wheatley’s films) is best viewed knowing nothing about it beyond the set up. It has an all-star cast of Cillian Murphy, Bree Larson, Sharlto Copley and the cast are wonderful in their respective roles. I especially enjoyed Armie Hammer as the handsome, beard oil wearing professional badass and Sharlto Copley as the bungling, vain idiot who just wants to impress Brie Larson’s character, even as she despises him. In Free Fire not all gunfighters are born equally, here we run the gambit from angry junkie to professional killer and all colours inbetween.

Watching Free Fire is like having a gourmet donner kebab. Something that is usually done very badly, served up with such high-quality ingredients, by a master chef is a rare and delicious treat. The accepted standard for action films is low. I have seen many action films where I am not even sure what is happening, or who is shooting at who. Action films are, often loud and brainless, and among audiences there is a feeling that, at their core that is what they are. Action films are often the greasy slop served up at 1am to glassy-eyed, uncritical, and less than discerning customers.

Ben Wheatley makes the genre feel fresh and interesting again in a way that few directors can manage. He hasn’t simply smeared the usual, tired clichés with sour cream and coriander leaves, he has started again from the beginning, and, changing analogies mid-sentence he has rebuilt the house of action with bespoke bricks one at a time. He keeps a firm hand on the action, we get plenty of character development, and there are meaningful differences between the different characters and their motivations. The film managed to get me to laugh, both at the witty script, the black comedy from the action but also audibly howl when something particularly gruesome happened (the film does not skimp on the black comic gore).

It is interesting that Wheatley (and Amy Jump) have moved away from a genre they are so accomplished in, but they are equally adept at making action comedy it seems. They have such talent that they make me realise that most film makers are, not particularly good at their jobs.

Like a rollercoaster ride, Free Fire is cathartic. You yell, you laugh, you howl, then the credits roll, and you feel something akin to tranquillity.

If you want to check out the other Ben Wheatley Rewind’s or see reviews of his films from the rest of the Nerdly crew just click right here.


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