1st March Preview Event. Released 31st March.
Dir: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
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Review by Simon Ramshaw
Over a congested eight years that has seen him direct six films, Ben Wheatley has never been one to settle in one particular genre. True, he dabbled in the hitman/crime picture twice in both his debut and sophomore features, but the approach he took in each created something subtly new and exciting. His take on the pulpy action movie in Free Fire is no different. Instead of paying homage to the balletic ballistics of John Woo, Wheatley has taken the route of systematically deglamourising gun violence by having every single one of his characters crawl around in the filth of the shootout floor.
Essentially 20 minutes of Tarantino-esque wise-cracking followed by 70 minutes of bloodletting and verbal abuse, Free Fire simply pits arms dealers against arms buyers in a warehouse and lets everything rip. Wheatley’s undeniably ballsy and experimental treatment of the action genre is as exhausting as it sounds. This is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, my admiration for Wheatley for staging this amount of carnage in such a contained space is immeasurable. In the insightful Q&A after the film, he stated that 7,000 rounds of blanks were shot during production, and they had to pinpoint where each bullet would hit weeks before the film even started shooting. Like George Miller on a smaller scale, Wheatley’s effortful first foray into action shoots for the stars.
However, there’s not quite enough manic energy to sustain it for 90 minutes. Every single character rolling around in dirt because they’ve been kneecapped does admittedly get dull after a while, and the complex geography of the warehouse gets lost in the edit. There were even points where my mind began to drift, thinking what the film would be like if it was entirely filmed in one graceful, flowing take. But that would be betraying Wheatley’s rough-but-smooth editing style, one that flicks through so many intimate close-ups per minute that the hyperactivity of the blood-drunk characters feels rather delirious. Wheatley has to compromise here, and goes for making the feeling of the characters’ suffering palpable rather than making what we’re seeing understandable. It’s a fascinating creative decision that I’m eager to watch again, now I know what Wheatley has in his box of tricks.
On the character front, everyone is thinly drawn, but it’s not quite something that matters here. Every cast member has charisma and verve (with Sharlto Copley in particular giving a hilarious performance as the vain, petty arms dealer Vernon), which does help enliven the proceedings when the film gets repetitive. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see Wheatley still testing new waters and taking new risks. He hasn’t found a niche yet, but I don’t think any of us would truly want him to find one. He’s a young, confident filmmaker who hasn’t compromised his vision once, and even though Free Fire might be a flawed exercise in style, it’s at least one that pulls no punches and does things its own way. In an era of studio meddling, muddled visions and tiring tropes, Free Fire is the bullet up the arse filmmaking needs to revitalise itself.