The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington tells us his thoughts on the British comedy/action film in his Free Fire review – screened at Brighton’s CineCity.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley
Stars: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley
Plot: 1978 America. Justine (Larson) has brokered a deal for IRA criminals Frank (Smiley) and Chris (Murphy) to purchase guns from gangsters Vernon (Copley) and Ord (Hammer) in an abandoned warehouse. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding soon leads to a fierce shootout between the two factions.
Brighton-based director/screenwriter Ben Wheatley’s latest film had the honour of opening this year’s CineCity Brighton Film Festival. And judging from the laughs made by the audience on the night, it was definitely a great choice. Shot very close to home turf (a warehouse just outside Brighton), Free Fire is an insane action comedy with lots of blood-drenching slapstick violence which Wheatley said he owed to that found in The Evil Dead and Tom and Jerry. And frankly, it made more sense than his previous film High-Rise did.
The overall premise is simple, but Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump manage to make their story creative thanks to some great characters and genuine shocks. From the off, we know that the gangsters’ deal will naturally go wrong due to the already heavy friction between both sides. Yet when the first shot is eventually fired, it still catches you off guard because you weren’t completely expecting it to happen. The sound is very effective here; the gun fire sounds so loud that it jarringly ends the film’s brief moments of ceasefire.
However, against the fact that they face certain death with their multiple injuries, the characters still find time to throw some witty (and generally insulting) one-liners at each other. This is the film’s greatest strength as though these criminals are all meant to be unlikeable, they still prove to be consistently funny and even offer some surprising character depth. For example, when questioned over how much he drinks, IRA man Frank (Smiley) admits that he is a recovering alcoholic. It is those sort of revealing lines that makes them a little sympathetic to some extent.
It helps too that Wheatley has a well-cast group of actors who are clearly having a ball playing their roles. It is hard to pick one stand-out amongst them because of how good they are, whether it is Brie Larson’s brashy and diplomatic Justine or Sharlto Copley’s self-obsessed mobster Vernon. However, it is arguably Armie Hammer’s Ord who gets the film’s best lines. Whether he is keeping his cool when others are losing theirs or duplicitously trying to offer his help to someone else, Ord provokes the biggest laughs just because he is a perfect foil to almost everyone else with his charming demeanour and quick-fire shooting skill.
Even though Free Fire’s sole location is a warehouse, it still perfectly captures the essence of the late 1970s thanks to some superb costumes and hairstyling. Wheatley himself said that the film is meant to be reminiscent of movies released in that period. This is reflected best in Justine, who is heavily modelled off Cybil Shepard’s character in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Coincidently, Scorsese came into prominence during the 70s and is one of the executive producers for Free Fire so it seems only fitting for his work to be acknowledged by one of the most prominent British directors of our time. Wheatley is a great filmmaker and Free Fire is easily one of his best works.