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By George Haigh
Free Fire is the sixth feature from acclaimed British director Ben Wheatley, best known for his cerebral and, at times, turbulent films, such as Kill List and Sightseers. Free Fire is easily Wheatley’s most accessible work yet, and doesn’t feel too distant from his preceding film High Rise, an adaptation of J.G Ballard. High Rise showcased a stepping stone for the director, allowing him to work with much more mature themes and also a bigger cast, whilst still retaining a strict sense of independence.
The film takes place in a decadent warehouse in the 1970s, which contributes a welcoming sense of time and place to the minimal plot. We’re quickly thrown into the midst of a potential arms deal taking place between some unlikely gunrunners and some mouthy IRA members. The situation feels shaky right from the start, and it results in an absolute debacle of a deal that couldn’t possibly go more wrong.
Wheatley is a filmmaker who has always worn his influences proudly on his sleeve – and Free Fire is a film that boastfully pays homage to the cult cognizance of the early works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. The latter, an executive producer here, would surely have been impressed with the well selected post-Vietnam soundtrack, the use of John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ being a standout.
The obvious comparison here will be Reservoir Dogs, but Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump have delivered a story devoid of anybody entirely likeable, as keen to fire snappy dialogue at each other as they are to grab their weaponry, albeit not always delivered in a consistent Massachusetts accent. We’re not really allowed to become invested in these characters before it’s raining bullets, and despite the accomplishments of the sound design, the scenario becomes repetitive in the film’s clammy second and third act. The characters we meet lack the sharpness and eccentricity to ever be as memorable as those from similar films from Tarantino or Scorsese, which becomes problematic.
The film has all the credentials to churn out a new spin on the dated gun movie, but Free Fire feels like a slight misfire. The more fleshed out characters such as Justine (Brie Larson) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley) are given their fair share of the script’s finer moments, and in Copley’s case, given a caricature of the film’s jazzy wardrobe of 70s suits and brave haircuts. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t lend enough to some of the other characters; an underused Cillian Murphy for example, and they are admittedly left clinging to the kind of hackneyed dialogue that doesn’t do justice to such a fine cast.
There are a few exceptions, however. Frank (a terrific Michael Smiley) immediately takes a hilarious disliking to the all-American muscle of Ord (a surprisingly solid Armie Hammer) as he spouts off about ‘the real Hollywood’ being in Northern Ireland. It’s a subtle middle finger to the Hollywood studios that Wheatley has so far managed to stay well clear of.
Free Fire certainly isn’t a bad film; it’s arguably just a routine one for someone of Wheatley’s calibre. The audience of the sold out screening at HOME were also welcomed to a Q&A with, not just Wheatley, but also frequent collaborator Michael Smiley too, who were both brilliant in their discussion of the film. Wheatley, who talked about his meeting with “the greatest living filmmaker” Scorsese, showed the intelligence and honesty of one of Britain’s finest filmmakers. There was even a discussion of the possibility of making a Western, which unsurprisingly seemed to stir well with the audience. Free Fire took home the People’s Choice award when it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and here in Manchester the film was greeted with a warm reception, and will undoubtedly be a success when it plays at HOME from the 31st March.
From left to right, Michael Smiley, HOME curator Jason Wood, and Ben Wheatley.
Photo credit: Chris Payne