Since making his screen debut back in 2009, there haven’t been too many more consistently engaging and prolific directors around than Ben Wheatley – particularly this side of the Atlantic. More than that, there’s certainly not been a more diverse hand working than Wheatley with the director exploring everything from the English Civil War to a modern allegory set in a luxury tower block. True to type, Wheatley’s new flick Free Fire delivers something new to the back catalogue with probably the most fun film of 2017 so far.
For the first time, Wheatley takes things stateside – to 1970s Boston to be exact – where twelve angry men – OK, it’s actually nine but you start to lose track of the body count soon into Free Fire – and one tough ‘doll’ enter a warehouse with Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) arranging to buy M16 rifles (not AR15s) from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) in a deal set up by mediators Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Soon enough an old grudge between two of the opposing parties causes bullets to fly in a mesmerisingly choreographed – and expectedly comic – shoot-em-up romp.
From the synopsis alone your expectations will no doubt be sky high – or at least they should be. And we’ll go firmly on record as saying Free Fire packs one of the most eccentric and memorable ensemble casts you’re likely to see for a long time. Oscar winning Brie Larson (Room) heads up the crew, while a bearded Hammer, Smiley, Murphy, Sam Riley and Copley all get their time to shower in the ridiculousness of Free Fire too. Copley especially – best known for his District 9 work – gives easily the best comic performance of the year so far as a blustering South African insecure pervert arms dealer in a naff bespoke suit.
Under many other director’s guidance, the stacked cast could cause a real issue for Free Fire. But Wheatley’s storytelling is impressive to say the least. As well as being ten characters – each with near enough as much to do as the other – there are at least four factions to establish. Wheatley gets the job done so quickly that as soon as the bullets start to fly twenty minutes in, you know where each is targeted.
The real triumph of Free Fire, though, is Wheatley’s ability to keep the peaks, troughs and pacing on point despite the film essentially being one elongated fight scene with an occasional phone ringing. You’re always on your toes and it never lets up without ever being truly exhausting – this is mainly because Free Fire plays for laughs as much as it does suspense.
Despite the suits and the jokes, the film is packed with subtlety and light touches too – especially when it comes to the shootout set pieces. A simple two metre shuffle across the floor to a safe piece of debris can feel like the whole of The Bridge on the River Kwai. And despite bullets flying – there are plenty of them – the editing (a role Wheatley also takes on his shoulders) also allows for plenty of throw away one liners over the commotion and you can’t help but bellyache at the buffoonery of these 1970s shoulder pad-clad, polyester suit-wearing clowns.
This is without doubt Wheatley’s most fun film yet – it hits the crowd-pleaser target repeatedly and in every sense. And while you could stop and question the lack of depth, the director’s commitment to hitting those genre thrills means you simply just don’t have time or will to not applaud it. He also drops a trio of John Denver classics to the showdown just to illustrate the intended absurdity.
The brilliance of Free Fire is that while it does sniper for the shootout clichés, this is still undoubtedly a Ben Wheatley film. Free Fire is odd, packs wonderfully playful dialogue (thanks to his long-time collaborator Amy Jump), and does actually offer a different take on the last man standing premise, whereby you don’t really care who it is at all. Wheatley’s ability to produce quality film remains consistent, even if his styling doesn’t – and that’s a rare find.
Free Fire is released in UK cinemas on 31st March 2017.
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