"We've got two choices. One, you distract them and I'll leave. Or two, you kill all of these mother-fuckers and I'll leave."
Ben Wheatley is probably one of the most versatile and interesting directors working today. Love them or hate them his films have all been strikingly unique and elegantly different from just about everything else in cinemas today. Compared to the likes of ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High Rise’, his latest film ‘Free Fire’ might seem like a step down from the meditative, artful movies to this crime comedy. But anyone who has seen the film will know that is absolutely not true.
A group of arms dealers led by an arrogant criminal named Vernon (Shartlo Copley) and his representative Ord (Armie Hammer) meet up with a pair of IRA members (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) with an intermediate Justine (Brie Larson) to oversee a deal. But when complications arise a full scale gunfight breaks out and everyone involved is thrust into a game of survival in which the chances of making it out alive seem very unlikely.
Despite not possessing any deep or meaningful undertones as Wheatley’s other films have, ‘Free Fire’ is the clear product of a masterful director playing purely within a refined genre. What it lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer entertainment value as ‘Free Fire’ is completely engrossing, oddly hilarious and action packed from the first frame to the last. It is perhaps the best example of pure cinema I have seen in some time, completely stripping away the crux of narrative turns in favour of one, drawn out action scene that never fails to be engaging.
‘Free Fire’ is the kind of film that really requires its director to know what he is doing. To construct and structure each sequence in a way so as not to be repetitive or derivative, and Wheatley does this perfectly. The way he raises tension in the first section of the film is only matched by the manic energy of the rest of it. Some have drawn comparisons between Wheatley’s film and Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’, a comparison that isn’t unwarranted. Like Tarantino, Wheatley’s script (co-written with Amy Jump) brings about tension through dialogue, raking up the stakes, mapping each characters own insecurities and volatile attributes so that the viewer can sense the unease in the situation. Long before the arms deal ever goes south we can feel the unease in the situation and are just waiting for events to reach boiling point somehow.
Where ‘Free Fire’ sets itself apart from its predecessors though is the manic energy of it. One would think that an action scene taking place in such a confined space for such a prolonged amount of time would grow tiresome but the key to any great action scene in geography and cohesion, which is done brilliantly here. The area in which the action takes place is mapped out from the start, with a sense of architecture to the warehouse that allows the viewer to know where any character is at any given time. The intricacies of the plot place them in just the right place to ensure that when something explodes it does so with the best amount of force. As the situation continues to escalate these attributes only become more important as even amid the endless stream of bullets the viewer is never confused or bewildered over what is going on. Obviously the whole film is powered by chaos and unpredictability but like the best of exhilarating cinema ‘Free Fire’ finds clarity within that chaos.
This is partly in due to the superb editing, which is also a collaboration between Wheatley and Jump. It is so seamless and masterful that it’s barely noticeable, being great in a way that never draws attention to itself but rather draws you deeper into the story. What the editing also does in maintain a level of tonal consistency, to a point where ‘Free Fire’ is just as fulfilling as an action film as it is as a comedy. Despite being both side-splittingly hilarious in one moment and horrifyingly brutal in the next the film balances these contrasting elements brilliantly. The atmosphere of it being set in the 1970s just makes it even better (incidentally I could recommend this and ‘The Nice Guys’ as great double feature).
With all of that out of the way all that is left to praise is the ensemble cast, and though it may be a given once you see who is part of that cast in question but I have to say they are all brilliant. This is certainly Armie Hammer’s best work since ‘The Social Network’, bringing great charisma and swagger to his role. Sam Riley also shines as the wonderfully pathetic junkies Stevo, as does Jack Reynor and Michael Smiley.
When it comes to picking a standout though I’m caught between three. The first is Cillian Murphy whose nuanced performance actually adds a layer of humanity to the whole film that may otherwise be sorely missed had it not been there. Then there is Sharlto Copely as Vernon, an arms dealer who was misdiagnosed as a child genius, coming with all the arrogance and self-delusion one would hope for. Last but not least is the ever excellent Brie Larson who is (surprise, surprise) excellent here as well.
‘Free Fire’ is thrilling, hilarious and ridiculously entertaining from start to finish.