6 April 2017

Free Fire review

Ben Wheatley may not be the most easily digestible director making a name for himself today, but as the man behind movies as varied as Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England and High Rise, I'd find it hard to argue that he isn't one of the most interesting. His films are never short of originality, often bursting onto the scene less like a breath of fresh air and more like a hurricane of different, and Free Fire offers no exception - set almost entirely within the confines of an abandoned warehouse, we follow two groups of colourful, vibrant characters as they engage in an absurd shootout that, barring a short set-up, lasts for the films entire running time.

That set up sees a group of IRA members travelling to Boston in the 1970s to buy a bunch of assault rifles from South African arms dealer Verne, but the details of why this deal is happening are nothing more than set dressing for a film that really only exists to ask and answer the question of "can a single gunfight in one location really be turned into a feature length film?". In that respect, it could be argued that Free Fire is more interesting as an experiment in storytelling than it is as an actual movie - but that doesn't mean that it's ever less than a very entertaining film too.

And a large part of the reason for that is that Wheatley seems to be acutely aware of not just the limits of the premise, but how to make up for them too. It would be easy to read a synopsis of Free Fire and conclude that story comes second to action here, but I'd argue strongly against that - Free Fire only works specifically because of its strong sense of story, or more accurately, its ability to tell a number of smaller, character-based stories over the films running time. We've got stories about greed, stories about family, stories about rivalry and revenge and betrayal and pride - add to that an impeccable understanding of the "but, therefore" structure of good storytelling that imbues Free Fire with a constant sense of development on a larger scale, and it starts to become clear just how finely-tuned and carefully crafted the screenplay from co-writers Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley must have been.

Also important to its success is how funny Free Fire is, thanks not just to the aforementioned colourful characters and their often hilarious interactions, but also the way in which it subverts expectations throughout. Free Fire may be a film entirely about a gunfight, but it isn't the intense action film you might be expecting - mere minutes after it begins, most of the participants are sporting flesh wounds that render them all but useless or losing blood so quickly that they soon become delirious and/or dead, only adding to the absurdity of the situation. Hell, most of these characters don't even really know why they're shooting at each other, or why they can't stop - there is an element of confusion running through the film that's only heightened by Wheatley's deliberate choice to keep the geography of the warehouse and its various participants vague at best.

All of which is only sweetened by Wheatley's solid sense of style and a cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Jack Reynor, all of whom fit their respective roles as if they were born to play them (or, more likely, as if their characters were created with them in mind). Sharlto Copley in particular is a delight as Verne, giving what may be his most Sharlto Copley performance to date - it's relief to find out that someone other than Neill Blomkamp knows how to use him, as Free Fire yet again proves that in the right role, he can breathe life into a movie in a way that no one else can.

Free Fire isn't without its flaws, of course - I can't help but wish that the dialogue were snappier in places, and for a film all about a gunfight it has to be said that most of the actual action is pretty forgettable - but ultimately the film's strong sense of personality and unique, well-realised premise is more than enough to make up for those relatively small issues. It may not be Wheatley's most challenging film, and nor is it his most meaningful either - but it's the one I've enjoyed the most so far, and I'm willing to bet that you'll feel the same way.

4 stars

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