Free Fire (15)
DIRECTED BY: Ben Wheatley
STARRING: Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
Free Fire takes place in 1978, and has the shoulder pads and Paisley patterned blouse to prove it. But the film’s spiritual calendar – the zeitgeist that blows through it with a contagious, bone-tickling chill – is turned to End Times. The callously uproarious new film from Ben Wheatley takes place almost entirely inside a tumbledown harbourside warehouse in Boston, Massachusetts, where a delegation from the Irish Republican Army are collecting a shipment of assault rifles from a yawping South African gun-runner and his seamy associates.
The place looks like some of the less-scenic aftermath of a nuclear attack: “Whatever they used to make here, nobody wants it now,” observes IRA dealmaker Chris (Cillian Murphy), as he and his cohorts are led through the rubble towards their fateful rendezvous with Vernon (Sharlto Copley, operating just within the uppermost limits of stomachability) and his van-load of Beretta AR-70s.
The ground is strewn with glass and dust, while every broken-down wall leers like a gap-toothed smirk. The only things that matter inside are the weapons and money – lives come a distant third – and those are all present and correct: in short, there’s absolutely nothing here worth fighting over. But that doesn’t mean the two sides won’t give it a try.
Wheatley’s sixth feature is the kind of film you sense might have been made on a dare. Because when the arms deal goes south – as it inevitably, and almost immediately, does – the film devolves into a 12-way shoot-out which keeps blazing, yelling, limping and leaking blood right up to the final cut to black.
The challenge faced by the Sightseers and Kill List director – along, of course, with his regular co-writer Amy Jump and their impeccable ensemble cast – is a simple but testing one: bringing excitement, tension and purpose to what’s ultimately an idiotic and pointless bloodbath. It’s a heroic group effort, resoundingly carried off.
Suave middleman Ord (a luxuriantly bearded Armie Hammer) and enigmatic facilitator Justine (recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson) are the closest things to sympathetic characters Wheatley and Jump have to offer. But when the bullets start swarming, they become as brutal and reckless as the more alpha-type scumbags around them.
Alongside Murphy on the IRA side, there’s grizzled Frank (Michael Smiley, terrific) and dumb hired muscle Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti), while Vernon’s associates include Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (a superb Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), each of whom has their own agenda in play.
If you’re wondering who the 11th and 12th participants are, know that Wheatley keeps a couple of wild cards up his sleeve, which sets up a touchingly despairing one-liner from Reynor at around the halfway point: “Who the f--- is shooting at us now?” – a line that embodies the standoffish, joke’s-on-them shrug with which Free Fire is carried off.
The group’s fashion choices are almost as loud as the deafening muzzle blasts and twanging ricochets filling the air. But while they enable some glorious visual gags (watch for a wispy puff of padding when one bullet tears through someone’s shoulder), the outfits go beyond fancy-dress pastiche. These characters are clowns in the purest sense – rag-clad, outcast buffoons who deserve everything the universe has lined up for them – and the film delights in making sure they get it.
It’s the kind of merry mayhem that demands steely precision in terms of technique, but that’s in plentiful supply – not least in Wheatley and Jump’s whip-crack editing, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s burping, parping free jazz score, and Laurie Rose’s dependably great cinematography, all jam-sticky colours and high-fibre visual grit.
Yet for all its hip gesticulations towards John Boorman, Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese (the latter of whom serves as an executive producer here), Free Fire goes out of its way to be as "not like the movies" as possible. Bullets wound and immobilise with maximum agony – and the most "deserved" deaths, when they finally arrive, will have you twisting in your seat – but the kind of glamorous "clean kills" on which the entire tradition of the Hollywood shoot-out has been built are conspicuous by their absence. (Tarantino-style pop-culture monologues come in for equally short shrift.)
“I’m talking about the real Hollywood – County Down, Northern Ireland. None of your Cecil B DeMille bullshit,” Smiley’s IRA man sneers during an ice-breaking chat about (what else?) the weather, which just about sums up Wheatley’s platform here. Far more than his previous films, which tend to unfold in a dream-like daze, Free Fire is a mad contraption, bristling with bravado and black, sardonic wit.
That’s arguably all it is, though of course time and further viewings may prove otherwise. But if the old-style auteur B-movie is more or less scorched earth at this point, there’s no-one better equipped than Wheatley to inherit it.
Robbie Collin - The Telegraph
FRIDAY 27 OCTOBER 2017
Doors: 7.30pm Film 8pm
The Guardian - ★★★★
The Telegraph - ★★★★
The Independent - ★★★★
The Times - ★★★★