FREE FIRE. Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley. Directed by Ben Wheatley. 91 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
Fans of director Ben Wheatley (and his creative collaborations with his wife and regular writer Amy Jump) will now recognise the characteristics that unite many of his films (‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’). There’s a general sense of anarchy in their approach to plotting and editing, even to their characterisation, and I would say that this incoherence can engender two general responses. One is boredom, as futile attempts to chart the films as you would a classically plotted and rendered film come up short. The other is amazement, as the sheer confidence and utter madness of their direction pins down you in your seat. For me, ‘Free Fire’ scrapes into the latter category; however, Wheatley has used up his last ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. Should he make another film that narrowly misses its mark, consider his title as a visionary filmmaker lost. You don’t earn that title by making numerous films that all approach excellence but come unstuck. Visionaries shouldn’t leave audience unsatisfied.
The set-up of ‘Free Fire’ is simple: two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), are in Boston looking to buy a cache of automatic rifles. They have two associates, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). The gunrunners are led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and include Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). Finally, there are two intermediaries, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer).
All ten players meet in an abandoned warehouse where the deal is to take place. There are already cracks in the group. Stevo smokes some heroin before arriving. Vernon, whom Justine describes as ‘an international a**hole’, rubs his own men the wrong way. Chris makes advances on Justine that are swiftly rebuffed. These cracks are worsened as the deal progresses – Vernon has brought AR-10 rifles when the deal was for M16’s, and Harry realises that Stevo was responsible for glassing his cousin in a barfight the evening prior. Eventually something gives and a shot is fired. In the ensuing hour-and-a-half, hundreds more rounds will be loosed, because everyone is armed and no one wants to leave without the money and/or weapons and not before settling their scores.
Once the firing starts, the space of the warehouse becomes all but incomprehensible. At no point does the editing give the viewer a clear understanding of where everything is taking place within the setting – in fact, I could only deem that any given character wasn’t in view of another if they weren’t being shot at, and even this logic has its momentary lapses. Wheatley and Jump edit their own films, and they tend towards a very free-flowing, loose style. One could argue that this frenetic confusion is intentional to convey the mania of the action. However, in the context of a shoot-em-up genre film, this doesn’t really suit the story. For an audience to fear for someone’s safety or be gripped by suspense, understanding the danger that they’re in and therefore knowing where they are in relation to others are crucial to these thrills. Without that, the violence and menace are too random and formless to have an impact. The sound design goes out of its way to compensate, creating an impressive, dense soundscape of unique gunshots and reverbs, which certainly helps situate the viewer within the action (even if not in a known position therein).
The reason that ‘Free Fire’ does ultimately classify as a picture that wowed me comes down to the bold vision of Wheatley. He makes no excuses for the film, presenting a bold take on a genre that has been more successfully navigated by directing royalty like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese (who serves as an executive producer here). It’s not entirely satisfying (see the reasons above plus an ending that, while consistent, is underwhelming), but it is what it is unapologetically. It wouldn’t have cost a great deal to produce (the one warehouse location is a mess of concrete, dust and disused materials), but it’s still rare to see a cast of this calibre working in such a gritty, wild movie.
‘Free Fire’ definitely focuses on the first word of its title – its narratively and stylistically unhinged – and it never coalesces to perfectly generate the implication of the second word, but it’s a singularly determined vision and a breathtakingly bold one at that.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 27.