by Joanna van der Veen
If you wanted to sum Free Fire (2016) up in one sentence, you could do worse than this: “an entirely pointless gun battle, between lots of surprisingly stupid people”. It’s a thin premise bulked up by charm, wit and a stellar cast; a fast-paced action comedy with a host of memorable characters.
The film is the latest offering from British director Ben Wheatley, whose back catalogue features titles as diverse as last year’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian thriller High-Rise (2015);offbeat black comedy Sightseers (2012); and psychedelic, low budget period piece A Field in England (2013). The thread that seems to weave all of Wheatley’s works together is a penchant for the dark and macabre, and Free Fire is definitely no exception.
Although its plot is slightly more complex than the first sentence of this review suggests, it’s not by much. The setting is a derelict warehouse in 1970s Boston. An arms deal has been set up between two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, presumably Republican terrorists) and a colourful dealer duo made up of prissy misogynist Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and “failed Black Panther” Martin (Babou Ceesay). The parties have two hired men apiece to help move the goods, and then there’s cool-as-a-cucumber negotiator Ord (a brilliantly bearded Armie Hammer) and the lone lady, fixer Justine (Brie Larson). The deal goes awry when two of the players discover they know eachother – and have unfinished business.
What ensues is, naturally, a gun battle. An easily avoidable gun battle that has no prospect of achieving anything except carnage, but a gun battle nonetheless. It’s not your typical kind though:the participants don’t drop dead or continue running around once they’ve been hit. These guys spend most of the film limping, crawling and hiding, screaming and shooting barbed one-liners at one another along with their bullets.
And it’s these – and the multi-layered relationships they imply and create between the characters – that elevate the film from being a boring shoot-‘em-up to a laugh-out-loud romp. Copley’s Vernon deserves a special mention here: a “misdiagnosed child genius” in a polyester suit, you can’t help but wonder how he ever got into a position to be selling guns. Hammer is also fantastic: Ord doesn’t seem to care about anything as much as he cares about his personal grooming, and his exasperation throughout the film is a perfect foil to the audience’s (assumed) incredulity. Sure, some of the main players aren’t as well-developed or entertaining – but there’s 10 of them and the film’s only a sweet 90 minutes.
There is an awful lot of shooting: apparently around 6,000 bullets were fired in the making of the film. And sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in who’s shooting who, and why, and where from and, no really…why?This is obviously partly intentional, but can get a little frustrating if it’s not entirely your bag. In this case, the period detail is something of a welcome distraction – the costumes, hairdos and set design are all worthy of an honourable mention. There’s lots to look at and lots to like beyond the bullets, but there are also a lot of those bullets.
In summary: Free Fire is loud, obscene and violent. It’s also hilarious, with sharp dialogue, and unique enough to be distinguished from other films of a similar genre. Don’t go into the film expecting depth – it works on pretty much just the one level – but do sit back and let yourself be swept up in its madness.
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.