Say what you want about overvaulting cinematic ambitions – I’m looking at you, Terrence – it’s sometimes refreshing to see a talented filmmaker take on a simple concept and carry it off with flair and aplomb.
In the case of Free Fire, the latest from British auteur Ben Wheatley, the concept is this: the third-act shootout, with which any self-respecting crime thriller must surely culminate, instead kicks off less than twenty minutes in and occupies the rest of its ninety-minute run-time.
The eight participants – one half IRA associates, the other half arms dealers – spend it– crawling about the concrete-strewn floor of an abandoned warehouse; blind-firing from cover and trying not to get shot . Grievances are aired, alliances made and broken, and polyester suits ruined (the action takes place in the mid ‘70s).
Through innumerable flesh wounds – we’re talking Monty Python Black Knight levels – and strangely good-natured Schadenfreude, Wheatley manages to things on the boil without ever spilling over into outright chaos (as I’d argue was his downfall in last year’s High Rise). He even manages, with a few memorable exceptions, to keep a lid on the gore.
With a cast composed largely of caricatures – Sharlto Copley’s brash, indignant Vern and Armie Hammer’s sardonic, too-cool Ord being perhaps the MVPs – it’s hard to get to invest too much in any of them (beyond, at least, what entertainment value Wheatley and co-writer/wife Amy Jump imbues each of them with; generally a lot).
There’s nothing particularly allegorical at play here, no moral lesson or deeper meaning; just bruised egos, bloody knuckles, and Laurie Rose’s stylishly sallow cinematography. Any attempt to imbue it with added meaning should be met, as it is within the film itself, with sudden and brutal violence (preferably set to the strains of John Denver).
Free Fire is, nevertheless – in fact largely because of this – an absolute blast (in fact, many blasts, of varied calibre). Pure and simple genre fare, it demonstrates Wheatley is as comfortable with crossfire as crosscutting. Hollywood, we’re sure, will be calling. Britain’s loss.