Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
Made in quick succession with last year’s anarchic J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, Free Fire finds Ben Wheatley in looser form. Where High-Rise evoked the rise of Thatcherite Britain and the societal divisions that blossomed from that rotten seed, Free Fire is less consciously political, despite the central conceit being an IRA arms deal. The two films would make a fine back-to-back double feature, not only for their shared late-70’s aesthetics, but because both find Wheatley and his long-time partner Amy Jump examining how micro-communities fracture within specific hothouse environments.
Where High-Rise featured a sophisticated tower block boasting every conceivable mod con and subsequently had the interlocking feel of sleek architecture, Free Fire takes place – almost wholly – within a derelict warehouse, all rubble and grime. It’s a stark contrast, but the very inelegance seems to inspire in Wheatley a more relaxed, boyish levity, almost certainly enabled and boosted by his stellar cast. This lightness is probably the film’s greatest trick; though it feels carefree, comedic and organic, one gets the impression Free Fire was every bit as meticulous to craft and execute. Wheatley hides these complexities and makes it look enviably effortless.
To begin with there are two sides, as you’d expect from any self-respecting backwater arms deal. We’re in Boston, 1978. Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) want to buy guns to take back across the Atlantic. A deal has been facilitated with the help of Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). The seller is a preening South African, Vern (Sharlto Copley), an erratic but charismatic character backed up by the more level-headed Martin (Babou Ceesay) and the hippie-haired Harry (Jack Reynor). Things start out cagily, but nevertheless a deal is struck. Trigger fingers are itchy as trust is hard-earned, and this sets a nice level of unease beneath everything. The mood if affable, yet tense. However, things take a sudden sour turn thanks to Frank’s junkie cousin Stevo (Sam Riley) and with surprising ease the meet turns into a bullet-flying gun battle. Just as quickly two sides becomes every man (or woman) for himself (or herself).
If that seems like a lot of names and faces to keep track of, you’ll be pleased to know that a) that isn’t even everybody and b) it’s fine. Wheatley contains, arranges and rearranges his eclectic cast of characters with confidence. What surprises is just how well this is teased out for a golden 90 minutes of rapid fire fun. I’ll put my hands up readily and say I’m rarely impressed by gunplay in movies, especially when it wanders into gratuity, yet Free Fire – which can be unfairly boiled down to an hour-long shoot-out – manages to skirt excess, remain varied and, frankly, delight consistently.
The violence is never protracted or for that matter casual. Bullet exchanges come in fits and starts like carefully accentuated punctuation marks in the unfolding story and when Wheatley’s players are injured it seriously effects their abilities to change their circumstances. It’s not long before you’re scouring the fragmented inhabitants of the warehouse trying to keep tally of who can still even walk. Actions have consequences, intentional or not (ricochet is a serious liability here).
The reason all hell breaks loose becomes immaterial almost immediately. What’s more, as characters divide and mix – and as double and even triple-crosses threaten to challenge loyalties further – Free Fire never leads the audience to assume that reconciliation or compromise is an option. It’s a rather cynical indictment of human character, but presented with such a gleeful smirk as to be riotously enjoyable. While we laugh and wince at the staggered mayhem on screen, Jump and Wheatley are condemning human nature. With immediate pressure applied, they’re telling us, the individual’s selfish survival instinct will override all. Or maybe it’s much less severe than that. From the beginning there’s little in the way of trust between these people. There may even be a shared sense of death wish between them. As though in some way they were all waiting for this to happen; a deja vu fulfilled.
That too may be a stretch, but one of the most joyful things about Free Fire is that it largely shrugs off highfalutin analysis. This won’t be regarded as one of the loftier cinematic experiences of the year because it’s too bailed up in genre trappings (despite not really being a genre film), yet with the possible exception of Edgar Wright’s forthcoming Baby Driver few titles on the 2017 agenda seem likely to play to please this readily. Free Fire will find an audience – largely the same audience that’ll be drawn to Wright’s film, coincidentally – and they’ll be happy to receive it.
The film is a win on several fronts. It’s an editing masterclass. Though you may sometimes be uncertain of the geography of the warehouse, the film never seems to cheat and it doesn’t ever confuse. The sound is great fun (so many zings, pews and whistles, all seemingly unique, little characters themselves), and the cast are, one-and-all, immaculate. Picking out favourites is hard. Everyone seems to be having such immense fun that all characters here tilt to our favour, even those ruled by pettiness or vice. There is no lead. If pushed, Copley brings the most comedy, though Hammer brings a charm offensive of an altogether different stripe, and Larson makes sure Justine is never relegated to token female status. Don’t go underestimating her role in all of this.
There’s still something of a glass ceiling to this one, perhaps that’s down to its whimsy or resistance to more penetrative inquiry. But, in pure enjoyment terms, Wheatley has handed us perhaps his biggest ace. It’s not his best film to date, but if you look at the deck this probably lands nearer the top than you might’ve expected. Crackerjack.