“I’m not dead…I’m just regrouping.”
It is fitting that Martin Scorsese is listed as an executive producer on Free Fire, the latest film from writer/director Ben Wheatley. Scorsese forged out one of the greatest careers in the history of cinema by never settling on any one genre. He may be primarily regarded by mainstream audiences as an auteur of crime cinema, but the diminutive New Yorker can count psychological thriller (Cape Fear), satirical comedy (The King Of Comedy), and historical biopic (The Aviator) as feathers in his considerably decorated cap. Over the course of his nigh 54 year career, he has proven himself to be a master of all trades.
While the writing/directing/editing team of Wheatley and Amy Jump have had their films out in the wild for 40 odd years less than Marty Scorsese, they have quickly established themselves as filmmakers who are similarly adept at turning their hand to a variety of film genres. While the majority of their work has some level of horror pulsing through it, they have managed to produce a crime drama (Down Terrace), a jet black comedy (Sightseers), a surrealist historical drama (A Field In England), an adaptation of a dystopian satirical novel (High Rise), and an all out, brutal horror film (Kill List). Their prolificity has only been matched by their artistic diversity, yet their unique fingerprints are visible on everything they have done.
With their latest outing, the married couple have once again taken their talents in an unexpected direction. Free Fire is a kinetic, chaotic and frantic action set piece stretched out to feature length. The setting is a warehouse in ‘70s Massachusetts. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA men looking to buy weapons from arms dealer Vernon (the always magnificently offbeat Sharlto Copley). Brie Larson’s Justine and Armie Hammer’s Ord are intermediaries, brokering the deal. The wild cards in the deck come in the form of smack-smoking Stevo (Sam Riley) and hot headed Harry (Jack Reynor). An altercation between the latter two lights the touch paper, and a fracas quickly descends (or escalates?) into a firefight.
Free Fire is split quite distinctly in two parts, with the dialogue-heavy preamble taking up the first third. This introductory segment leans heavily on both its cast and its dialogue. One soft performance or buff line can derail this kind of chamber piece before it begins. Fortunately, there are no misfires to be found here. The cast are all excellent. Everyone gets their moment to spit a cracking line, and nobody detracts from anybody else’s moment. Copley is understandably receiving plenty of plaudits for his hilarious, seemingly improvised performance as the shmoozey, slimeball Vernon (think of a South African Del Boy in a disco shirt and you’re half way there). Sam Riley’s turn as the sleazy, grimy spanner in the works shouldn’t go unnoticed though, nor should Larson and Hammer’s game work as the cool-headed brokers who are trying to keep all of the testosterone fuelled egos from exploding.
Inevitably though, the bullets start to fly. The moment they do, Wheatley shows himself to be as sure footed when crafting an action sequence as he is when dealing with horror, or comedy, or both. The first thing that jumps out at you is the exceptional sound design. The film features a minute amount of non diegetic music. Instead, the shootouts are soundtracked by the explosive sounds of guns being fired, echoed shouts across the warehouse, and the piercing sound of bullets ricocheting past skulls. These weapons don’t so much fire as combust, with the sound of each gunshot delivered at ear-melting volume. Wheatley stated in a recent interview that he wanted to portray how it really feels to witness a gun being fired, rather than the tepid, feathery gunshots we see and hear in most action flicks. Not only does he accomplish this mission, but it has the desired effect, with the action sequences managing to thrill while almost inducing shell shock.
Wheatley has always seemed to enjoy disorientating his audience, and that signature penchant for mischief remains here. During the shootouts (or perhaps it’s just one, hour-long shootout?) he refuses to provide us with a wide shot of the warehouse. Instead he shoves us behind the crates, barrels and walls of the warehouse, down in the dust next to the characters. We are never quite able to discern who is where in relation to whom. At times, it’s a challenge to figure out who is even shooting at whom. At one point, Noah Taylor’s Gordon brilliantly screams, “I forgot whose side I’m on!” Tell us about it.
The greatest triumph of Free Fire is the way that it is able to constantly keep you engaged in spite of the fact that the set up is the narrative. After the first shot is fired, the bullets don’t stop until the credits roll. Jump and Wheatley are able to find the moments and the stories within the action that make the film much more than just a group of set pieces. They also show admirable restraint in keeping things short and sweet, with the film running at a tight 90 minutes. Many people have compared Free Fire with the work of Quentin Tarantino, but the truth is that Tarantino hasn’t made a film this lean and disciplined in decades.
Free Fire is living, blistering proof that a film doesn’t need to be deep, meaningful or even beautiful to be fantastic. Wheatley and Jump have tasked themselves with finding increasingly interesting ways to have a bunch of shady people un around and shoot at each other, and they have absolutely succeeded. The film is an ever evolving chess match between a group of characters who walk just on the right side of cartoonish, and the result is simply the most fun I’ve had at the cinema this year.