Starring: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson
Director: Ben Wheatley
Running Time: 91 mins
Synopsis: It is the 70s, two groups meet in a deserted warehouse to trade guns for money. The IRA, led by Murphy and Michael Smiley have brought the dough, whilst the guns are represented by Copley and his hired muscle played by Armie Hammer. Each has brought back-up. The deal goes wrong. The bullets fly. Not all will make it out alive.
We can all agree that Brit director Ben Wheatley is one of our finest new talents, but even his most loyal fans could probably attest that his films are not always audience palatable. There is the sheer tonal shifts and horrifically bleak genre turns of Kill List. The almost impenetrable pretension of A Field in England. Even High Rise, his biggest film to date, dovetails into a second half far too surreal and esoteric for some tastes. Two episodes of Doctor Who is likely the only time Wheatley has conjured up something approaching mainstream. Of course all these films are impeccably shot, filled with moments of dizzying skill and feature capable casts. It also cannot be denied that he sticks to his voice with a firm and fierce hold of the material.
The reason for all this preamble is that Free Fire is Wheatley cutting loose and delivering something short, sharp and immensely entertaining. Scripting with regular collaborator Amy Jump, Free Fire wastes no time getting down to business. Outside an anonymous warehouse two groups are meeting. The IRA, here represented by Murphy’s Chris and his grumpy number two Frank (Michael Smiley), with Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti as back-up. They have been brought together by Brie Larson’s middle woman Justine. Subtle sparks fly between her and Chris, whilst Smiley deals with the stupidity of his so called “back-up.” Into this steps Armie Hammer as Ord. Smartly dressed in his grey suit and Steve Jobs-esque collared jumper, he is cool, cocky and instantly at loggerheads with Frank.
It is straight to business as they head inside and meet the men providing them guns for the Troubles. This group is led by a loud-mouthed South African named Herb (Copley, winningly manic), chatty, quick to anger and a little on the stupid side. Behind him is Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor, all looking for a quiet clean exchange of goods. It is not long before criss-crosses become apparent and one unforeseen encounter from the previous night sets in motion a call to arms. Barely 25 mins go by before the first bullets are let loose but the genius of Jump and Wheatley’s script is that we know all we need to know by this point to endear us to every character.
Each one of them is sharply sketched with a mixture of dialogue and performance. All of them are slightly unhinged in a number of ways, from Riley’s drug abusing bug eyed insanity to Hammer’s calmly measured bouts of violence. It is quite an achievement to have this many characters and have none of them feel underwritten or underused. Wheatley works hard to give every one of them a time to shine, and the cast pay him back by letting each other get their moment, no need for showboating here with such a balanced script. If I had to pick a few standouts, Sam Riley is having wildly infectious fun as Stevo, responsible as he is for the whole deal going wrong. Hammer is the definition of cool while Larson gives the only girl amidst the testosterone some added grit. Jack Reynor is also having a real ball, in fact all of them are, each so good that it is painful to even attempt naming a favourite.
You would imagine, though, that once the guns start going off that the character work would come to a halt. On the contrary the film smartly continues to pride individualistic moments amidst the bullets, and continues to increase the hilarity factor. Yes Free Fire is nigh on high comedy throughout, with wisecracks and delightfully witty put-downs gleefully bounding around. This dose of humour slides into the action itself. The violence here, while realistically graphic and painful, is delivered with such panache and madness that it consistently leads to guffaws. Tex Avery is clearly a subtle influence here, reaching Acme levels of violence but with the added heft that no one just walks off their wounds here. Almost half of this film features its characters crawling, shuffling and dragging themselves around the bullet strewn warehouse.
The action is staged with clarity and a welcome awareness of the geography of the environment. In fact Wheatley and his crew mapped out every single bullet hole, using the computer game Minecraft to draw out his warehouse in exact detail. This attention is evident with his camera floating and capturing the action with a seamless motion. Cinematographer Laurie Rose captures the 70s look effectively and certainly knows how to make the gloriously dressed cast look damn cool, even when their stylish clothes become ever more dishevelled.
What helps this film truly sing is the impeccably mixed sound design. Every gun has a subtle but distinct sound, and it is nice to have a film that knows guns are meant to be LOUD! The most unique use of sound here, though, is how dialogue floats across the entire 360 degree spectrum. Conversations begin on screen, but sometimes move off screen with the dialogue continuing behind you out of the speaker, whilst more dialogue happens in front of you. It is akin to a Robert Altman film laced with extreme violence and cussing. Free Fire becomes truly immersive thanks to this technique, and I cannot stress enough how much this needs to be seen on the big screen.
At 91 mins Free Fire is delightfully to the point. Brevity is key to this film working because even at 1 hour and a half the concept pulls tight towards the end, with a slight fatigue setting in in the last 15 mins. It is nowhere near enough to offset the film but Wheatley makes the perfect decision to end it when he does. A testament to what a talent he is is that there is no temptation to play to any selfish tendencies and overcook the pot. This film may finally be the one that helps him cross that divide between arthouse and picturehouse!
Verdict: Free Fire succeeds through efficient characterisation, cheekily playing with expectations and mixing the cartoonish with the ruthless to dizzying effect. You’ll laugh, wince, cheer and want to do the whole thing all over again immediately!