Ben Wheatley has kept mostly to high concept fare in his films to date, but with BFI London Film Festival closer Free Fire he’s keeping things simple: 12 men (and woman), a lot of guns, a lot of money, and a single warehouse.
The setting is Boston, 1978. The IRA (represented here by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are here to buy a few cases of assault rifles from moderately unhinged South African arms dealer Vernon (played with lunatic abandon by Sharlto Copley). Brie Larson and a magnificently bearded Armie Hammer are the middlemen who’ve put the whole deal together, while the likes of Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, and Jack Reynor help round out the cast as the assorted muscle on either side.
The deal goes inevitably wrong before too long, and from that point on Free Fire offers only one thing: a 12-person free-for-all, as bullets and insults are thrown about with equal violence.
It’s at this point that you might be wondering if even a director as capable as Wheatley can sustain interest in a single 90-minute firefight, and it’s true that after a while the seemingly endless bullets and minor wounds begin to blur together in the film’s slightly saggy midpoint.
Thankfully, Wheatley seems to become aware of the structure’s limitations, and Free Fire’s second half sees him let loose his more inventive side. There’s Copley’s Vernon having getting set on fire and having to put himself out with an extinguisher, Riley’s Stevo taking a mid-fight break for a quick bit of smack, or a comically slow van chase set to the none-more-soothing tunes of John Denver. It’s these moments that help Free Fire rise above most similar post-Tarantino gangster fare, as Wheatley’s distinctive comic voice shines through.
He’s helped by an able cast, though not every role is created equal. Copley is a manic, self-obsessed highlight, while Riley and Reynor make the most of a bitter rivalry to bring out their best and Hammer’s mounting exasperation carries much of the film as it nears its end. Unfortunately Murphy and Smiley can’t do much to get beyond their rote IRA gunmen, and Brie Larson feels positively wasted in a part that’s perfectly charming and almost entirely dull.
Along with the simpler premise, Wheatley abandons the formal experimentation of his last two projects, High-Rise and A Field in England, and Free Fire is all the better for it. This feels like a director having fun, and it turns out that’s pretty infectious, making the film hard to resist.
Free Fire screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016.
Words by Dominic Preston