In each of his films since his debut (2009’s Down Terrace), Ben Wheatley has thrown down the gauntlet. He breathed new life into the tired British gangster genre; made genuinely upsetting horror films out of the base human inclinations to find a mate and start a family; constructed a hallucinogenic masterwork out of £300,000, five actors and an open field; and birthed an unforgettable Roeg-ian bacchanal out of an apparently unfilmable novel.
Wheatley’s creative derring-do continues with Free Fire, the director’s sixth film in eight years and current frontrunner for most purely entertaining movie of 2017. If the project began—as one suspects upon watching—as a mere self-imposed filmmaking challenge, then Wheatley has more than outdone himself. This is, like Wheatley’s own similarly small-scale and conceptually outré A Field in England, a genre picture crafted with considerable throwaway verve. There are obvious comparisons to Reservoir Dogs, but not even Tarantino could help himself keep the action confined to a warehouse for an entire running time, let alone stretch out one of his Mexican standoffs to some 70 minutes.
Partaking in Free Fire’s lengthy showdown, there’s Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley) and Frank’s skeezy cousin Stevo (Sam Riley), in town to buy guns from Vern (Sharlto Copley), Martin (Babou Ceesay) and their muscle Harry (Jack Reynor), with Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) the mediators who forgot to check in advance whether anybody from the two parties might share murderous grudges. After a brief introduction that sets up the characters and a city, possibly Boston, as the wider location, the firefight begins, and the film never leaves its disused riverside factory. It’s Wheatley’s third film in a row where his characters simply can’t seem to leave, though the vibe here is less macabre and supernatural. This time his high concept is played for dark laughs: Nobody can escape Wheatley’s warehouse because it’s full of testosterone-fueled egos, each trying to assert its dominance and stubbornly soothe a lot of macho pride.
The entire movie is both celebration and gentle satire of muscular crime movies—the minimalistic American samurai movies of Walter Hill seem a particular influence—complete with tactile gun battles and tough-guy dialogue. Not every line is as clever as Wheatley and his co-writer/creative partner Amy Jump think it is, but the director, whose first four films often had an improvisational, see-what-sticks quality, shows marvelous control of the action. Aided by a jazzy Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) score that nattily keeps things rolling, Wheatley controls the ebb and flow of this latest picture with precision.
Whenever the bullet ballet gets to be too much, all the shooting takes a pause so we might once more get our spatial and narrative bearings. During these comparative downtimes, Wheatley and Jump swap around character alliances and introduce new and unexpected developments. Beginning with the ambitious single-location set-up itself, the pair constantly subvert expectations as they indulge in blown-out action movie tropes, from the amount of physical punishment characters take before going down, to the movie’s pace actually slowing as Free Fire progresses, the bullet-riddled survivors ultimately reduced to crawling across the warehouse floor. For flavor, Wheatley then peppers his simple premise with squelchy violence, cartoonish sound effects and big visual gags (including a final prizewinner late in the game where we find out just what this disused factory used to produce), all the while drawing game performances from his stars.
The film’s ensemble is faultless, but the young upstarts make the biggest impression: Sam Riley, AWOL but for the occasional little-seen work (and Maleficent) since his breakout in Control ten years ago, here makes a case for his rediscovery as dimwitted junkie Stevo; and the terrifically adaptive Jack Reynor (from arthouse Irish cinema to Transformers to this here pitch black comedy), is drily sadistic as eager henchman Harry. Armie Hammer steals some scenes with his cocky stoner vibe, while Brie Larson delivers the film’s killer punchline in its final moments with a single, aghast look. Everyone involved appears to be having what many po-faced modern actioners lack: an infectious bit of fun.
Free Fire doesn’t make a claim of great depth. It is, like High-Rise before it, about a cross-section of (criminal) society electing to tear itself apart when forced to co-habit a space together. But probably no one should read too much into that. Really Free Fire’s a movie about its own craft and the interplay between its actors—not to mention a trial run at bigger budgeted and more “mainstream” filmmaking for Wheatley. It’s a disposable B-movie that responds to the tendency of Hollywood action moviemaking to blow up all stakes by shrinking them instead, squeezing them down to the finest possible point, reclaiming such cinema as an intimately physical endeavor.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley
Release Date: April 21, 2017