Released: April 2017
Director: Ben Wheatley
There’s undoubted hints of Tarantino running through Ben Wheatley’s latest violent crime thriller, from the Reservoir Dogs-style single location to the Pulp Fiction-esque importance of a briefcase, even if we do know what is in this one. While most of the soundtrack is so sparse it’s easy to forget it’s there, there’s a couple of jauntily incongruous tunes, exquisitely timed, that add to the Tarantino feel. Add in the graphic violence in a few scenes, and it’s easy to assume on paper that this is a derivative film, little more than a pastiche to the master, but that would be wrong.
While it’s clear Mr Wheatley has taken inspiration from his predecessors, you only need to look at his back catalogue to see he has a distinctive style all of his own that is being honed and teased out. From the occasionally grotesque BBC comedy Ideal, to the darkly comic and utterly British Sightseers and then the 2016 hit High Rise, he has been creating a signature that puts him now at the forefront of British directors. His films are funny, but often awkwardly so, a humour born from either tension or the pure shock at the incongruity of a scene, such as Tom Hiddleston in his suit eating a dog in High Rise. It shouldn’t be funny, and in many films it wouldn’t be, but under Wheatley’s careful camera it becomes almost impossible not to laugh. They are graphic, but sparingly so, meaning there is the opportunity to draw a real reaction from the audience when he wants to. They are bleak and hard to categorise. They all feel a little like the classic British comedies of the 90’s (See: Brassed Off, The Full Monty, East is East) but one that someone has dropped some kind of horrific circumstance into.
Free Fire is no exception. Taking place in a weapons deal that goes wrong, almost the entire film occurs inside an old factory, with neither side really wanting to be involved, and everyone scrambling from rubble heap to rubble heap to keep safe. It’s very much a cast-led film, and everyone pulls their weight. Each actor fits their character so well I can only assume a certain amount of freedom around the script was allowed to let each person really make it their own. Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer get the obviously stand out roles, with Sharlto playing an over-confident idiot, and Armie Hammer the slightly less bombastic and much more competent and vain second man. Copley is often accused of letting his accent do all his work for him, but I think this is people ascribing to his accent what actually comes from his impeccable timing. On the Irish side is the ever understated Cillian Murphy and the frighteningly gruff Michael Smiley. To those who thought they would never be able to shake his role as Tyres in Spaced from their heads, it is a pleasing surprise to see him not only in such a different role, but also so good at it that Tyres really does fade from view.
The supporting actors also put in stellar performances, with so much relying on them being able to act scared, injured and full of bravado all at once. Sam Riley and Jack Reynor are rival morons, the back up team with no brains, and they play off each other brilliantly. Each has their own opportunity to turn the whole thing around and stop the stand-off, but neither can see past his own pride to do so. Brie Larson does an excellent turn as competent and patronised Justine, sweetly nodding and smiling to their faces and rolling her eyes whenever they look away. The freeflowing stream of sexism from the rest of the players could, in less deft hands than Wheatley’s and co-writer Amy Jump‘s, taint the film, however accurate for 1978 it might be, but adding Justine’s reactions into the mix helps highlight that bird, doll and sweetheart have always reflected worse on the people using them than they have generated goodwill amongst those supposedly complimented.
The film has brilliant pacing. At any moment you start to think “OK, is this it for next 90 minutes?” something else happens to bring a new dynamic to the trapped rivals. Nothing comes out of the blue though, and there are a number of well placed signposts so nothing feels too much like surprise plot. To complain that there are too many gunshots for aural comfort may be accurate, but unfair, as you really do know what you are getting yourself into before coming to see this. Occasionally there is also too much shaky camera on close-up fights, leaving me unsure as to who tackled who or even who won (if, indeed, anyone did). These however are minor gripes, and overall barely notice.
The dialogue is authentic, and the range of insults that span the divide between the two gangs is breathtaking. There are any number of quotable lines, my favourite’s being “I’m not dead… just regrouping” and Vernon’s insufferably smug instruction to “Watch and Vern”, and I can see people taking home a few new terms of abuse. Watching each person get slower and move more awkwardly as the number of injuries builds up is hilarious, and feels much more real than the bouncing-off walls that seems to happen without repercussion in most blockbusters today.
The only thing that holds Free Fire back from being one of the all time great films is it’s own limitations. It’s a superb example of a claustrophobic gangster shoot ’em up, but it doesn’t take that anywhere new. I’m not sure there is anywhere new to take it without it becoming a completely different film, and that isn’t what I want. I am delighted that Free Fire hasn’t tried to break the restraints and tackle bigger issues or become analogous to any movement, because I love this film exactly as it is. It’s funny, and brutal and startling and everything a good shoot-out should be.