It is 1970s Boston, two Irishmen, a South African and half-a-dozen Americans walk into an abandoned warehouse to buy some guns… Despite how it may sound, this is not the start of a bad joke, but it is the opening and pretty much entirety of Ben Wheatley’s latest feature film, Free Fire. instead of leading to a snappy one liner – a subtly witty, ‘and then the Barmen says…’ – this film’s punchline is a long and repetitive digression of bullets, blood and dirt, that is begging to be hailed as this generation’s answer Reservoir Dogs.
Ben Wheatley has for a while now been touted as the up-and-coming British director; a critically lauded star that people should keep an eye on. In his previous films, there is no doubt he has shown off his capability to bring askew stories and oddball characters to life across all genres – horror, thriller, comedy, sometimes all three at once. Recently, in perhaps what was his most publicly known feature, audiences were left somewhat bamboozled by his uncompromisingly stylish and Kubrickian High Rise. If you choose to adhere to IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, this film left something to be desired. For me, however, High Rise was a stroke of cinematic genius, a sleek and seedy flow of artistic prowess that captured the very essence of J.G Ballard’s seemingly uncapturable novel. It is only fair to say that when I left the cinema, after witnessing Tom Hiddleston chow down on piece of fried dog, I was eager to see whatever Wheatley had in store for me next.
Free Fire does not necessarily have a story, but rather a quite simple situation: Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are hoping to buy guns of Sharlto Copley’s Vernon, in deal that has been brokered by Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), but things soon turn sour, as a grudge between the two opposing group members leads to an unrelenting shoot-out that lasts the remaining duration of the film.
The writing of the characters and the actors’ performances are perhaps the strongest features of this film. Amy Jump and Wheatley’s script, is packed with memorable quips and funny one-liners – most of them delivered by Copley or Hammer – that surprisingly find their mark amongst the rapture of sprayed bullets. Also, the economic relationship building between characters, specifically Frank and Chris, ensures that this not just a superficial comic and violent romp: we feel the connections between the participants, and understand the extent of their relationships. Unfortunately, this cannot be consistently sustained over the ninety-minute running time, and things that were novel at first soon disintegrate, leaving audiences with a somewhat enjoyable collage of carnage that overtime fails to provoke or shock.
Whilst the editing is stylish and gives you a real sense of the pain caused by every bullet, Wheatley stays tight to his actors, rarely choosing wide or establishing shots that give the characters a sense of place in relation to one another. Like the dirt that mingles with the copious amounts of blood, the violence at times becomes an indistinct blur and it is hard to exactly pinpoint who is doing what to who. Perhaps that is intentional: Enzo Cilenti’s character does exclaim ‘I can’t remember whose side I am on!’ But the end result is something that is frankly quite repetitive and feels baggier than it should – even though it is only ninety minutes, the film does drag despite the odd hilarious quip.
Comparing this film to Tarantino’s work was an inevitability. Like Reservoir Dogs, it predominantly takes place in an abandoned warehouse, features a deal gone wrong and culminates in a shootout. It has well delivered humour and at some points well delivered violence. However, despite containing elements of the famous Tarantino Bloody Mary, Wheatley’s cocktail is lacking a vodka kick, a depth that would protect Free Fire from being just a film you leave on in the background of a party.
Free Fire was never going to be a complex meditation on mortality. It’s amazing trailers never modelled itself as anything but the no holds barred action romp that it is. However, I was not expecting it to so out rightly ditch Wheatley’s wonderful weirdness and complexity that is proudly displayed through every inch of his previous film. In its attempt to be accessible and its attempt to feel like a future cult classic, it loses its grip on its audience and, notwithstanding its entertaining qualities, too often misses the target of brilliance that you would expect from a Wheatley film.
Dir: Ben Wheatley
Scr: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley.
Prd: Andrew Starke
DOP: Laurie Rose
Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Sailsbury
Country: United Kingdom
Run time: 90 min
Free Fire opens nationwide across the UK on 31st March 2017.