Free Fire review – a gritty and action packed film
‘A meeting between two gangs in a deserted 1970’s Boston warehouse quickly escalates into a shootout and a game of survival.’
With only a handful of films under his belt, director Ben Wheatley has quickly carved out a career as a true auteur. Mostly favouring the horror or psychological genre, his films are distinct and stand out uniquely to him. Free Fire, his latest film, is his first foray into action comedy territory. Despite this being his most conventional film, he is still able to infuse it with his own particular style and put his stamp on it.
A simple and stripped down plot, the majority of the focus goes to the style, humour, and action of the film. Revolving around an arms deal taking place in an abandoned factory during the late Seventies, the story starts with IRA members Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), looking to buy some rifles from arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Joined by two representatives overseeing the deal (Brie Larson and Arnie Hammer), and filled with men on both sides, the warehouse soon turns into a shooting gallery when things go disastrously wrong and shots are fired. What was meant to be a straightforward transaction, now has become a desperate fight for survival.
Once again Wheatley has provided another great film which only he could have made. Helping the film stand out is its structure. After a quick set up of who’s who and what’s about to happen, what plays out is your standard shoot-out. The only difference here, is that this skirmish lasts the duration of the movie, is presented in real-time, and never lets up, as a basic narrative develops around this one long action set piece. Trying to make a movie in real-time is a huge challenge. To shoot a film can take weeks, sometimes months, and then to have to edit the footage together to make what the audience is watching look like it’s unfolding naturally is no small feat.
Wheatley, who was also the editor along with wife Amy Jump, accomplishes this excellently though, and makes sure everything gels together cohesively, keeping the continuity perfectly in place. When the shooting begins and everyone dives for cover, instead of descending into chaos, he expertly makes sense everything so he can tell his story in the midst of this hour long action scene. Lines drawn and sides picked, this warehouse becomes a stage in which Wheatley keeps everything contained and watchable.
This isn’t a John Woo film either, and the shoot-out is filmed realistically. There’s no stylised slow motion with people diving and firing two guns at the same time or when people get shot they can somehow carry on running, as if a gunshot wound can just be dusted off. No, in Free Fire, when someone gets hit by a bullet, Wheatley makes sure we feel it. In reality a lot of the characters spend most of the time on the floor, bloody and dragging themselves around, or hiding in cover trying to stay alive.
Adding to this authentic approach is also the fact that for the first half of this lengthy set piece, there’s no music or score, keeping our attention squarely fixed on this incredibly tense stand-off. Despite that, we are provided with a cool Seventies sounding score and soundtrack leading up to the action, and also towards the end in that final act as things come to a head. Overall, this is a far more dirty and gritty portrayal of a shoot-out, which actually fits the period setting.
Regardless of this more credible take on a firefight, things are kept entertaining by injecting a great deal of humour into this battle. Written by Wheatley and Jump, a considerable amount of that comedy comes from the characters banter and their various idiosyncrasies. It’s as if they know the absurdness of how quickly the situation escalated and can’t quite take it seriously themselves. Copley is undeniably the scene stealer as the unprofessional Vernon, and gets some of the best lines, made only funnier by sticking with his native South African accent, which no one can seem to place.
That said everyone gets their moment, and although these aren’t well rounded characters with in-depth backstories and motivations, Wheatley clearly shows that was never his aim in the first place. Larson’s Justine sums up this intention perfectly when she gives herself the most basic motivation in an acronym: “IMF” (In it for myself). Likewise, all the other characters are just as thinly drawn, with these people plainly there to serve the story and comedy, and not the other way round.
‘What Free Fire lacks in characterisation and plot, it more than makes up with a gritty seventies style, packaged in a competently made real-time format. With plenty of humour and a brisk pace, there’s a fun energy on display, which in contrast, actually slots in well with that authentic violence that comes with firing guns at each other. By taking a typical and over-populated genre like the action comedy, and doing something original and fresh with it, Wheatley once again proves he’s one of the most prolific film makers in the industry today.’
David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.
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