There is a two problems that come when you are excited to see a film. The first being that it will never live up to your expectations, and the second being that it can make you ignorant to the films faults. Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire is my most anticipated film so far this year, and so these problems do arise. This review is an attempt to move past those problems and mark the film on its own merit.
The set up is simple, it’s Boston in 1978 and the IRA are in town to buy some guns. They meet, via a couple of middlemen, a dealer and his goons in an abandoned warehouse. Through some coincidences and ambiguous antics the nights before, tensions arise and quickly a 60 minute shootout begins.
Now Wheatley is directly playing with genre conventions here. He is taking a small piece of action movies and stretching it out to cover almost all of the run time. There is an element of picking and choosing genre devices to use as plot points. For example, it’s a period piece, yet set in the middle of nowhere. This means he can use 1978 by having the IRA at the centre, and abandon any use of mobile phones. Consequently the plot becomes isolated and grounded around one premise. The premise – build up doesn’t last that long either, and the opening has enough time to establish all of the players. Without much time passing, we are familiar with traits of each character. Then, as the film plays out, these traits are fleshed out in correlation with the characters actions. What I’m trying to say is that the premise and genre selections allowed the shootout to make sense on a narrative level. The writing of the plot allows the deus ex machina’s to be sidelined by a coherent purpose. This is all minor stuff if you put it against the film as a whole, but I think it’s brilliantly done, because without it there would be no weight to all the shooting.
When the shooting comes, it is cartoonish, yet it was more visceral than I was expecting. The film definitely has moments of Kill List (Wheatley’s first feature), as the violence is graphic and at times quite sadistic. This worked for me and sat side by side in the grounded nature of the plot and characters. Bullets are flying everywhere and it’s shot in a style where it is not completely clear who is shooting who. There are quick cuts and shaky footage as concrete blocks ricochet, which at times makes the film quite disorientating. I think perhaps this might unsettle some viewers, though I feel there is enough gravity to each bullet fired to make it an entertaining performance. There was a real impact every time someone got hit or injured, often by their own failings. A lot of this comes down to technical design, and the team behind the sound and the set deserve the credit for this. Every character is crawling in pain for at least half of the film and the moments of quietness are what make the louder moments so enthralling.
The films shines as just a piece of sheer enjoyment. Sharlto Copley is fantastic as arms dealer Vernon, who manages to be hilarious with every line of dialogue, and Armie Hammer is unbelievably charming and nuanced as the main middle man Ord. These two characters alone are why the film is such a pleasure to watch. However there is also a feeling of heroism in the film, with Cillian Murphys IRA buyer Chris taking on a role that you can root for. He even has a budding romance with Brie Larson’s Justine, who is in some of the trickiest scenes of the film. All of these personalities jell together and the art of dialogue flow is incredibly well done between them. Wheatley has crafted a room full of psychopaths trying to kill each other, whilst also inviting them to be likeable and cared about. The film certainly has a lighthearted tone because of this, but does dip into somewhere dark every now and then.
It is safe to say I have gushed about this film too much, though like Green Room last year, it is a film almost made directly for me. A film with interesting characters, that never dwells on the drama nor looks past it. A film with a limited amount of ways to breathe, that keeps a focus throughout. The tone of the film leads it to be desperately fun from the opening credits, and the execution is just as remarkable as the idea of a feature long shootout. Must watch.