It’s hard to pin Ben Wheatley down. Gaining a cult following for his short films and animations on the Internet, he’s now got people like Martin Scorsese ushering him over to Hollywood to work with the big boys. It was an inevitability really. Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump are amongst the more impressive of our modern exports, trying something different with each project.
With a bit more cash to play with they have shown that they can indeed play with the boys. The first half of High-Rise is pretty much a masterclass in design, composition and pace before it essentially derails and unfortunately, despite the decent premise and some relatively good performances Free Fire misfires in much the same way.
Like High-Rise before it, Free Fire starts brilliantly. It’s slick, nicely shot, the pace is on point, Paki Smith’s set is excellent, imbued with the warm tones of Hopper’s The Sheridan Theatre. A bit of Creedence never went down badly either. The ensemble cast is brilliant, notably Sharlto Copley of District 9 and Elysium fame, who excels in the films promising first act, Wheatley sure to give him some great dialogue and room to play around.
Armie Hammer, Sam Riley and Jack Reynor are all adequate henchmen sufficiently infused with over-the-top ‘typicyal gyangstyer’ personas. Cillian Murphy, one of the best western actors of today, let’s face it, and Michael Smiley who you may remember as Tyres from TV’s Spaced, got me onside immediately as two Irish gangsters over in the US of A to procure some guns to fight the English. Excellent.
To begin with the whole thing feels like the movie Scorsese never made. The wit is sharp and funny. The characters are likeable and individual and remain engaging throughout. But the issue for me wasn’t the characters or performances. It’s just that nothing really happens or any mysteries unfold. It’s here that Free Fire jams up and falls short of the “seriously cool…and riddled with bullets” storm others promise.
It’s as if the moment the first shot fires and the Free Firing begins, after the initial shoot out it runs out of steam. Suddenly there are far too many characters with nothing much to do except roll around on the floor avoiding getting shot. Cillian Murphy has nothing to do for an hour really, except lie on his back under his porntash looking aggrieved, Copley seems to slip into perpetual ad-lib and Armie Hammer literally starts smoking joints. All these great characters are all of a sudden underused. Yes, there is comedy to be found in good actors getting a little bit shot, but it comes across as the B-Script for a Scorsese classic. Like the stuff Liotta, DeNiro and Pesci warmed up on before the ‘real’ shoot.
There is indication as to why women are underrepresented. Fair do’s, how many women where setting up weapons deals in the USA in the 70s? I’m not sure, I’m no historian. But as far as I know, the events of Free Fire never actually happened. In a sea of men, Justine is for the most part quiet and the only other woman anyone farts a suggestion of is an assaulted 17 year old we never see. Also, in a warehouse full of gangsters each giving the other plenty of reasons to screw them, did the catalyst for the proceeding violence really have to be at the expense of a brutalised teenage girl?
Despite my issues with it, Free Fire does have quality. The start is brilliant and I would have loved to have spent a longer period of time with the characters, exploring the meticulously lit space and having the actors play around a bit. With a cast of that level in the same place for so long, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. The sound design is brilliant. Loud, abrasive and immersive, you hear every single bullet. Wheatley and Jump are still interesting and engaging filmmakers and while Free Fire doesn’t quite reach the heights of Kill List or Sightseers it does lay a solid foundation what lies ahead. If this was Wheatley’s ‘Scorsese warm up’, then I’m very excited about what comes next.
Audio Commentary with Ben Wheatley, Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor
“Making of FREE FIRE Featurette
Interviews with Cast and Crew