Crawl Of The Wild: Free Fire Reviewed

Mat Colegate reviews director Ben Wheatley's latest, the action comedy Free Fire

Synthesis is one of director Ben Wheatley’s defining traits. Most of his films so far have been marked by their roping in of two or more disparate cinematic influences which are then lashed together to form a rickety, entertaining whole. Think of Kill List cut-and-shutting The Long Good Friday and The Wicker Man, A Field In England‘s combination of Jodorowskian out-western and folk horror, or Sightseers cross-breeding Nuts In May with Snowtown. All among the best films of recent years, but nonetheless for a director five pictures into his career, it is difficult to shake the feeling that Wheatley has yet to make a film that genuinely feels distinctly his.

And from the first trailers for Free Fire, his latest, you could be forgiven for thinking that that was not going to change. Wide collared neoprene suits, lots of guns and wisecracks and a co-produced by Martin Scorsese credit all pointed to this being Wheatley’s gangster film, his tribute to the crime dramas of Walter Hill, Scorsese and Michael Mann. The director’s first foray into tough-guy stuff. It is however to Wheatley’s credit – as well as that of his regular collaborator Amy Jump – that Free Fire is less a collation of tried-and-tested formulas and more of an exploration of what happens when you stretch those formulas to breaking point. It’s gleefully irreverent and that’s a large part of why it succeeds.

Free Fire wastes no time pissing about with set-up. Some dodgy looking men (including Sam Riley, Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy) want to buy some guns from some more dodgy looking men (including Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Babou Ceesay), the meeting is brokered by Brie Larson’s Justine. The men meet in a warehouse, there’s a misunderstanding and before long everyone’s quality ’70s duds are covered in bullet holes, blood and being dragged over the warehouse floor. The end.

But as any Ramone will tell you, it’s complicated being that uncomplicated and it’s in the details that Free Fire really shines. For a start the script – and again, it’s important to point out Amy Jump’s contribution here – is a joy, hitting exactly the right balance between hokey gangster cliche, scant-but-effective characterisation and dumb belly laughs that this short-sharp-shock of a film needs. The fact that its archaic rhythms are occasionally put into the mouths of actors with, shall we say, not particularly distinguished American accents (I’m looking at you, Sam Riley) actually goes some way to making the whole thing even more endearing, lending it the rag-tag, improvisational energy of a bunch of schoolboys playing the most elaborate ever game of guns. The costumes are also just that little bit off – a bit too garish, a bit too showy to be the clothes of real professional criminals. It’s a nice little touch that further underlines what we really need to know about the characters: that these guys are all a bit shit. Add to that inventive sound design (every shot fired has a meaty and satisfying thwack), and rich lighting and Free Fire becomes a deceptively simple gem, a work that’s a lot more than the sum of its scant parts.

However Free Fire‘s biggest innovation lies in its subversion of action movie beats with broad physical comedy. Although undoubtedly an action film – there’s a shot fired roughly every two seconds – Free Fire is completely unconcerned with macho heroics, gleefully undercutting them every step of the way. It is refreshing to watch a film of this type that features no last minute atonement, no two-fisted battles against the odds, no redemptive, cathartic realisations of power, just a bunch of idiots crawling around on the floor bleeding and swearing creatively at each other. It’s totally anti-machismo and yet still enjoyable as an action film. Just take a moment to think how unique that is.

The single location also forces Wheatley to get creative and the result is his most stylish and accomplished work. Whereas with his previous film, his adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, it often felt like he was afloat in someone else’s dream, Free Fire’s no-fucking-around set up grounds his talent as a director and ensures he hits the beats this kind of film needs. Stylish without being overbearing and simple without being dull – you’re never in any doubt as to where the different characters are located, which is essential in this type of film – Wheatley knows exactly when to tighten up and when to let loose. The results are gloriously anarchic and unpredictable.

Free Fire is, if not Wheatley’s best film, then certainly his most distinct. The one you feel he can build on in order to find his voice. A bright, funny and violent undercutting of every action cliché imaginable, it nonetheless works as a perfect Saturday night at the movies. Go and see Free Fire, make it a hit and then we’ll see what Wheatley will do when Hollywood comes calling. I for one cannot wait to find out.

Free Fire is in cinemas today

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