Give a man a gun, and he’ll be dead within the hour. Teach a man to use a gun, and… well, chances are he’ll still die. At least, this is the rule that applies to the universe of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a crowd-pleasing, single-location shoot ‘em up. Set in the 70s, it’s a gleeful, ironic riff on the gunfights of Peckinpah and Penn, and the chamber pieces of Tarantino and Mamet; it’s a film that doesn’t work unless surrounded by a crowd of whooping and wincing theatregoers.
A talented cast of both Wheatley regulars and hot Hollywood stars have been assembled to breathe life into a crew of deeply stupid arms dealers, almost all of whom are actively compensating for the size of their own genitalia. Standouts include Armie Hammer as a smug, jumper-wearing American; Sharlto Copley as a gloriously amusing South African; and Brie Larson as the sole woman of the group, who isn’t above getting her hands dirty. They meet for a sale of assault rifles, but the way the men bristle so quickly at slights to their masculine pride, they’re practically delighted when the gunfire inevitably breaks out. The drama proceeds in real time, as people get shot but don’t die, and spend their time crawling and limping around the warehouse, bleeding, firing inaccurate bullets, and shouting at each other.
There’s an impressive, inventive approach to how Wheatley and Amy Jump, his wife and collaborator, keep the action fresh. Set in Massachusetts but filmed in Brighton, the location is constantly re-defined; the audience is forced to keep track of who’s shooting at who; and the whole thing goes on for so long that it reaches a Beckett level of absurdity, helped along by a constant stream of gallows humour.
That being said, it’s a disappointing career move from Wheatley. There’s none of the fascinating editing rhythms of Kill List, the weird singularity of A Field in England, or even the grand ambition of High-Rise. Instead, it’s a straightforward genre exercise, executed with technical skill, yet with a noticeable lack of passion or experimentation. It’s possible that Wheatley, like the Coens, needed a bit of light relief after the ardour of his last project – and few would deny that the ride is fun. Though one must hope this doesn’t become a habit; it would be upsetting for such an interesting and distinctive filmmaker to fall down the rabbit hole of commercial viability.
Free Fire is released nationwide on 31st March 2017.
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