Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’ is an absolutely berserk throwback to the action films of the 70s. Those films didn’t feature big setups, car chases or blowing shit up but only group of gunslingers engaged in a riffing back and forth. Another way to look at ‘Free Fire’ is it being a hilarious example of the unchecked male ego that goes wrong with every insult. Wherein, every instance someone raises his voice, the angst infects and boils the blood of everyone involved.
Director Ben Wheatley & co-writer Amy Jump have been known for experimenting with various genres of films where they end up being not stuck in the genre game. Their films like ‘Sightseers’ and especially ‘A Field In England’ start off as something similar and end up being something totally incomprehensible. With their latest film, which is probably their least meaty film till date, they have donned the 70s magic in a gun-opera of slimy violence.
Set in 1970s Boston, the film is about a gun exchange in a tattered warehouse. Irishman Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have arranged to buy guns from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), where Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) act as middle-(wo)men. Everything seems fine until an old grudge between two of the participants pop-up which creates an indifference between the two parties. Like a bar fight that does not have a head or tail, the two group of men start shooting at each other in a sadistic, wryly funny battle of wits, superiority, masculinity and mostly self-induced style.
With the kind of setup that Wheatley offers, there’s not much room for storytelling or even character buildup. Hence, he approaches an impressive style of economic storytelling where small, minute goals are set-up and the various characters need to battle it out. For instance, when the shooting ensues, a briefcase of money becomes the main issue. Since there’s a centre of attraction to most of the characters involved, it opens up possibilities for Wheatley’s screenplay to flow freely. His camera often keeps moving from one character to the other and the constantly funny one-liners keep things in check.
The most intelligent part of Wheatley’s set up is how briskly he sets his characters up with their own little motives and agendas which seem all the more funny with the nasty wounds that are inflicted on almost everyone involved. The shy flirtation that goes between Chris and Justine is quietly balanced with a clingy and perversive one between Justine and Vernon. There’s also the interesting choice of not using a lot of background score in the film since the gunshots induce a kind of haze with a pitch-perfect sound design. The score hits only when bullets stop momentarily, where the characters try to rush for the exit or a certain goal inside the warehouse itself. John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ is being used twice in the film and one of them is absolutely hilarious.
Ben Wheatly has always produced quality films which defy the clerically generic idea of film-making. But ‘Free Fire’ has its issues. The pacing of the film lags somewhere between the 1-hour runtime when things start getting monotonous. There’s also the obvious comparision to Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ Though Wheatly’s film is grimmer, it lacks a certain flair that has been found in his previous films. That being said, the cast is absolutely spot on. When Sharlto Copley’s is the least irritating character in a film, you know there’s a certain craft involved. He is also the most hilarious one when he cares more about his suit and his infection than the deal that’s gone awry.
‘Free Fire’ is an interesting mix of black comedy and slapstick comedy put together in a tightly knitted homage to the 70s action films. Though not as meaty and also instantly forgettable when compared to Wheatly’s previous films, ‘Free Fire’ provides entertainment in truckloads. If you do stay for this gun-exchange you will not feel cheated. Not one bit.