Just as George Miller’s balletic action extravaganza Mad Max: Fury Road ostensibly made an entire film out of a single car chase, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire attempts to do the same for that other traditional action movie set-piece, the shoot-out. This action comedy of the blackest variety is a mobster B-movie boiled down to its purest essence: when there’s no honor among thieves, the bullets start flying. No frills, no fuss: as soon as we meet the cast in the film’s single location, it becomes immediately apparent that such a volatile mix of scum and villainy shouldn’t be exposed to the large number of guns and cash that’s on offer, so no prizes for guessing that them shooting at each other for 90% of the film’s running time was inevitable.
Also like Max Rockatansky’s latest cinematic outing, it’s hard to argue that these films actually provide commentary or deconstruction of their respective tropes. Instead, they seem more like experiments to test the tensile strength of these well-worn action sequences to find out if they can bear the weight of holding our interest in feature length form. And, again, like Miller’s post-apocalyptic Wacky Races, Free Fire just about proves it is possible.
Swearing is brilliant, isn’t it? If you don’t agree, it’s because I didn’t swear enough when I said it. Ben Wheatley also agrees as he opens his latest film with a cuss-ridden exchange between two smack addicts on their way to a dodgy gun deal somewhere in the industrial depths of Massachusetts. It’s a typical but no less effective way of opening a film devoid of redeemable characters to let the audience know not to root for the characters themselves but for their comeuppance instead.
However, the script is a more than little “try-hard” in these opening exchanges. The curse littered sentences sound just about on song when they’re coming out of the Celtic mouths of Cillian Murphy and Wheatley regular, Michael Smiley, but the coarse dialogue definitely sounds a little forced when pronounced with an American accent. But while this film may have an almost identical setup and location to Reservoir Dogs, it has far more direct priorities than trying to ape Tarantino’s iconic verbal sparring.
After the gun deal is set in motion by the two American liaisons, Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, we’re introduced to Free Fire‘s joker in the pack, Sharlto Copley’s preening ball of South African insecurity, Vernon. As is standard for the District 9 actor these days, he’s consistently larger than life and his performance is broader than a barn door, and it’s his aggressive fussing and inferring of every word or action as some kind of affront that provides many of the film’s fairly large laughter quota. That the Afrikaan Vernon is teamed up with an ex-Black Panther in this 1970’s setting just goes to show how little of a f*ck this film really gives.
After a rather tense negotiation over several crate loads of automatic rifles, it seems like a done deal with both parties satisfied until it transpires that an unfortunate incident had occurred the night before between two of the so-called heavies and once one gun is fired, it’s every man (and one woman) for themselves.
Apparently, Ben Wheatley mocked up the set for Free Fire in Minecraft to ensure that all the characters would be able to get to cover via plausible routes and this commitment to verisimilitude grants a significant amount of longevity to the single location of a dilapidated warehouse with little in the way of hiding places.
What follows is akin to a game of chess played with a selection of handguns without any great expertise. While the projectile weapons may be fired with the abandon of an 8-year-old with a water-pistol, the sound design of the bullets ricocheting around the cavernous room is remarkably visceral. Likewise, the film doesn’t stint on the consequences of gunfire either with nearly every character reduced to a crippled mess as they gradually become bullet-ridden pin-cushions.
That aforementioned sense of geography genuinely does keep the film somewhat grounded as the shooting wares on with characters swapping allegiances, double and triple crossing each other, or simply just forgetting what side they’re supposed to be on. As things start to wind down to the inevitable “last man standing” conclusion, the wafer-thin characters do start to run a little low on ammunition in terms of their entertainment value but proceedings offer just enough variety in gunplay and untimely but ultimately deserved demises to keep you in the fight.
But this is cinema as a mere technical exercise and as such, it stands and falls entirely on its director’s abilities…
SORTING THE WHEATLEY FROM THE CHAFF
Ben Wheatly has been an established name in British cinema for some time now and surely this has to be seen as his attempt to start to become the same in American cinema. Undoubtedly having Martin Scorcese’s backing as Exec. Producer for Free Fire -which the film’s marketing has been far from shy in making known- will help such a cause but questions remain as to whether Wheatley really warrants, or even wants, it.
Much like Peter Jackson’s early work was fixated on over the top horror that exceeded its means, Wheatley seems to be doing similar with the crime genre. He unquestionably revels in getting down and dirty into the worlds of deviants and deplorables as evidenced with his two early films: the kitchen-sink gangster flick Down Terrace and the hitmen go Pagan cult favorite, Kill List. The director did step out of his comfort zone last year in his uneven adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise but he has returned to what he knows with this bullet-hell showreel and is all the better for it.
Wheatley has unquestionable talent and chops as a director which are shown to full effect in Free Fire and he certainly has a lot of fun with such a stripped down concept. He also definitely has a voice as an auteur but whether he has much to say is still tantalizingly unclear as any attempt to pull something deeper or allegorical from his latest film would be tenuous conjecture of the highest order. It would be very interesting to see him land a gig in one of the many mega-budgeted cinematic shared universes currently doing the rounds as he’s already been a guest director several times on Doctor Who, so he’s clearly not adverse to coloring inside someone else’s lines.
However, maybe remaining on the fringes would be more beneficial in the long term where he can continue to pump exciting little experiments like this that having a big banner name might prohibit him from doing. And ultimately, it will be his career’s direction from here that decides how Free Fire is remembered: either as an unassumingly cute exercise in genre filmmaking or a pivotal piece of technical excellence that propelled its director into Hollywood. As of now, Free Fire will be a fun little shoot’em up about fools rushing in for most audiences but for those who have been following or recognize its directors potential, it is not unreasonable to be asking for a fair bit more than a 90-minute shoot-out.
AN ENTERTAINING ENOUGH EXPERIMENT IN REDUCTION FROM A DIRECTOR WHO HOPEFULLY HAS SOME SUBSTANCE TO GO WITH ALL HIS STYLE NEXT TIME OUT.
(Free Fire is released in US theaters on April 21st)