Free Fire

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Ben Wheatley

Starring

Armie Hammer Brie Larson Sharlto Copley

Anticipation.

Hot, cold, mad or bad – a new Ben Wheatley movie is an occasion to savour.

Enjoyment.

More fun than a hopped-up helicopter joy ride.

In Retrospect.

Finally, a film that is as enjoyable to watch as it presumably was to make.

The myth of diplomacy is the key ingredient of a hot lead salad in Ben Wheatley’s wickedly funny pistol opera.

If you type the words ‘golden hour-and-a-half’ into your favourite internet search engine, the results yielded will direct you to nostalgic ’90s digital radio stations, betting websites, and a swimming pool in Southport called Splash World. It’s a term dropped in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a film about how human beings will sacrifice their own lives before either being proven wrong, or apologising.

Sharlto Copley’s jabbering South African yuppie capo, Vern, is worried that he’s losing too much blood, having been clipped by bullets at various points on his body. Armie Hammer’s Ord, a turtleneck sporting, perma-baked gangland facilitator, assures his charge that everything will be fine. The rule of the Golden Hour-and-a-half means that an ample window remains for him to seek medical attention.

But there is no Golden Hour-and-a-half. Ord is inventing it to put a muzzle on Vern, or perhaps he is adapting the Golden Hour which, according to the very same search mentioned above, is an actual thing that exists. Used here, it isn’t a hollow reference to medicine, but a brief nod to movies themselves and their curative, restorative powers. They can drag us through the mill emotionally, right to the cusp of cardiac meltdown, but there’s always safety and security glimmering in the middle distance. It’s no coincidence that Free Fire runs for exactly 90 minutes. And you’d be hard pressed not to chalk up the time spent watching this delectably violent criminal caper movie as anything but golden.

Read more in our Free Fire issue

Ben Wheatley is a rare bird in UK film. He’s a director making the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. He keeps a toe in the arthouse but with an eye on the mainstream. He has no discernible style, adapting as the material demands. Collecting all his films together, from 2009’s dazzling single-set debut, Down Terrace, to date, he’s proven himself as a filmmaker who can put his hand to anything that comes down the chute. A theme that runs through his films is the dissolution of confidence. He chips away at the certainties of life, making simple things complex. His cinema is an obstructive act. He strips away the possibilities for happiness like so much mildewed woodchip wallpaper.

This new one is like a cracked circus mirror reflection of Wheatley’s previous, High-Rise. Where that film is sprawling and surreal, anarchic and misanthropic, this one is strict and structured, immaculately planned down to the frame and sporting a dopey grin throughout. High-Rise jolts off in random tangents and rejects conventional closure (or, to be frank, conventional anything), whereas Free Fire is a celebration of how images connect together.

They make for a nice double feature – both about mixed groups of people who are stuck in a building and, despite their desires to do so, just can’t seem to get up and leave. You could see them both as descendants of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, itself about bourgeois party guests psychologically imprisoned in a dining room. Something is drawing them back. It could be pride. It could be fear. Who knows?

It’s an invigorating work, mainly because Wheatley never once draws attention to his own exemplary craftsmanship. It’s perhaps his least stylised film, but also his most fun. Co-written with regular partner in crime and elusive cine-spectre, Amy Jump, the film trades in a salty Boston vernacular and a mean line in mic-drop putdowns. It centres on a bungled arms deal in a dilapidated, dockside factory.

On Team A is what appears to be two, double-hard IRA gun runners: Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley). Cutting the fam in for some action, Frank foolishly invites along his gangly junkie nephew, Stevo (Sam Riley), for some grunt work. Team B, meanwhile, is comprised of Vern (“Vern and learn, baby!”), his nervy disco hulk wingman, Martin (Babou Ceesay), and ready-to-please underling Harry (Jack Reynor).

Armie Hammer’s Ord is present on diplomatic duties, and so is Brie Larson’s Justine, who may or may not hold all the cards despite appearing as the innocent bystander at this macho gun/dick measuring contest. It would be very easy to dismiss the film as a feature-length shoot out, but the devil is very much in the detail. Vern is fixated with the loot, Chris and Frank need those guns. Just as everything is set for sign-off, shots are red and the possibility of an amicable settlement flies out of the window and into the sea.

Though the story of double, triple and quadruple crossings is simplicity itself (and as old as the hills), Free Fire couldn’t be more complex, as it marshals the action from various vantages and monitors every bullet as it pings and ricochets from the giant steel pillars holding up the roof. One thing that’s extremely satisfying about the film is that Wheatley never cops out and shows a bird’s-eye view of the factory floor, to give a basic sense of where characters are in relation to one another. It would ruin the fun, and the sense that the viewer is placed right there, in the shit, with the rest of these reprobate unfortunates.

Instead he conveys the spacial specifications of the room the hard way, through pans, dollies, tilts and tracks. A symphony of bullet sounds fills the soundtrack. Hearing a slightly different tone of ‘pfff!’, ‘tak!’, ‘dwang-ang-ang!’ evokes a shiver of delight, like an opportunity to collect all the different noises. Wheatley makes you feel how far one person is away from another, and gives a strong sense of how far away they are from any exits.

The balletic cliché of the gunfight is muted in favour of emphasising its absurd squalor. The action man staple of taking numerous body shots and still being able to sprint, roll and engage in physical combat, is an absolute no-no. These characters sustain injuries which duly decimate their abilities. Not that the film would resort to anything as cheap, but this is a nail-biting chess game where there are only pawns in play.

Free Fire also takes on meaning through its refusal to preach, or make attempts to manufacture some wider significance for itself. It’s mischievous and nihilistic, but elemental enough that it invites deeper reading. It presents the architecture of a breakdown while embracing individuality. It’s about diplomacy, the nature of discourse and the impossibility of total agreement. Even when there are parties involved looking solely at the long game, there will always be small, unidentified reasons why things can fall apart spectacularly. There will always be winners and losers, whichever way you slice it.

Published 29 Mar 2017

Tags: Armie Hammer Ben Wheatley Brie Larson Sharlto Copley

Anticipation.

Hot, cold, mad or bad – a new Ben Wheatley movie is an occasion to savour.

Enjoyment.

More fun than a hopped-up helicopter joy ride.

In Retrospect.

Finally, a film that is as enjoyable to watch as it presumably was to make.

Read More

Ben Wheatley: ‘I didn’t get anywhere with film until I stopped caring’

By Adam Woodward

The Free Fire writer/director opens up about his colourful past, and why he’s desperate to make a rom-com.

LWLies 69: The Free Fire Issue

By Little White Lies

We pay homage to Ben Wheatley and his wild and wonderful shoot ’em up spectacular.

Ben Wheatley reveals concept art for his next film Freakshift

By Adam Woodward

The director has dropped some bonkers early sketches by 2000 AD artist Mick McMahon.

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