Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Cillian Murphy
Watch Free Fire online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
“I forgot whose side I’m on!” cries someone halfway through Free Fire. It’s easy to see why: a shootout staged in a single location over 90 minutes, Ben Wheatley’s action flick moves from a warehouse meeting to bloodbath to full-blown chaos at breakneck speed.
There’s an audacious wit to the whole concept, as Wheatley and his partner-in-crime screenwriter Amy Jump take the standard final act of a crime thriller and then throw away the first two thirds. Stretching a set piece to breaking point, the result is a dizzying response to narrative conventions and a finger up to the artificial, stylised violence of Hollywood: with an hour and a half to survive, every blow, bullet wound and shard of glass hurts. There’s no easy victory here: staying alive is a full-time job. Between this and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, it’s almost impossible to look at an old-school shootout in the same way again.
But what works thrillingly well on paper, though, doesn’t always catch light on camera. The cast are having a whale of a time, as they bring an cartoonish, colourful energy to their cut-out-and-keep archetypes. There’s stern IRA man Chris (Cillian Murphy) and civil veteran Frnak (Michael Smiley_, who have organised an arms deal with the pretentious Ord (Armie Hammer) and efficient Justine (Brie Larson). And on the other side, there’s South African Vernon (Sharlo Copley), whose very existence seems designed to wind everyone up. But their trade soon goes sour, as one of Vernon’s men recognises drughead Stevo (Sam Riley) as the bloke who assaulted his cousin the previous night.
Insults are fired, followed by bullets, bullets and more bullets – and before you know it, everyone’s hiding behind boxes and trucks, shooting their load off at anything that moves.
There’s a superb precision to the out-of-control choreography, as the editing ricochets us back and forth between each shooter, never letting us get a full handle on what’s going on, but never letting us lose track of just how much blood is being spilled. The performances bring out the humour in the over-the-top banter, which parodies bigger budget productions, with Armie Hammer taking the chance to display the same glorious comedy chops that made The Man from UNCLE such a blast. “You smell like perfume,” says Chris. “It’s beard oil!” comes the pompous reply.
But while there’s enjoyment in the non-stop carnage, there isn’t always more to it than that. Pitched somewhere between Tarantino and Ritchie – or perhaps between McDonagh and Peckinpah – there’s a sense of style over substance that no amount of red stuff can cover up. That wouldn’t niggle so much, perhaps, if this weren’t a Wheatley joint: after the masterpiece that was High-Rise, this feels like the director blowing off steam, but not much more than that. The potential for political satire about gun crime sits there never explicitly addressed, with Wheatley’s dark streak of absurdist humour – watch out for the use of John Denver – never quite put to its full purpose.
The result is a smart deconstruction of action cinema, taking us from the slow-motion spectacle of the big screen to cowering on the ground in the middle of the fray. If Free Fire fails to come across as more than an exercise, though, it remains a ballsy middle finger up to the indie filmmakers who sign up to giant franchises to break into the mainstream. Free Fire cements Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley as one of the most interesting and exciting filmmaking duos in Britain: unpredictable, idiosyncratic and unafraid to shoot from the hip at anything they want. Long may that continue.