Ben Wheatley is UK cinema’s nerdy and offbeat cousin, and kind of a tricky filmmaker to pin down; it’s impossible to predict what he’ll cook up next, or how you’re likely to feel when you leave the cinema after watching his latest release. When it comes to genre he’s a mad scientist, inventing his own potent combinations and seemingly making up his own rules when it comes to writing the screenplay with his wife and writing partner, Amy Jump. The conventional three-act structure is nowhere to be found in his hodgepodge oeuvre.
This is refreshing. He’s the sort of filmmaker that the UK needs. Wheatley marches to his own beat and follows his passions wherever they may lead him. You get the sense that every single frame, every line of dialogue belongs to him and Jump, unequivocally. And with Free Fire it feels like he is really, finally, blossoming as a filmmaker, with all of the elements combining to make this his most entertaining film to date.
It’s a 70s-set comedy-action shootout set almost entirely in a warehouse, chronicling the unravelling of a meeting between two gangs in real time. The exceptionally strong ensemble cast of characters (with standout performances from Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer) are thrown together to negotiate a weapons deal, straightforward on the surface until extrinsic factors worm their way in and chaos ensues. From the moment the first shot is fired, the deluge of bullets is inescapable (for the characters and the audience), although occasionally interspersed by attempts at mediation between gang members.
For a film which is essentially an hour and a half of shooting, it’s extremely well written and meticulously staged. It’s as if Wheatley has extracted a scene from an action movie and deconstructed it, zooming in on its various mechanics and giving emphasis to all the moving parts. Every injury is felt. The characters do not simply spring back into the action once they are shot; they limp, bleed, and crawl through the dust and rubble, tenuously clinging to consciousness as they try desperately to outsmart each other. The fight to be the last man (or woman) standing is all the setup we need and the tension builds fluently from the offset, peppered with just the right amount of snappy quips and one-liners so as not to feel too intense.
Let’s talk about humour. It’s an essential part of Free Fire, merging harmoniously with all the gore and violence and guns, but it’s something which has been missing from Wheatley’s work since Sightseers. Due to the relatively freewheeling structure of their screenplays, Wheatley and Jump’s films can sometimes feel like a bit of a slog (I’m looking at you, High-Rise). The adding of humour to the mix creates peaks, giving us little moments of respite so that the heavy stuff is easier to swallow. Without it, and without the natural chemistry between cast members, the film wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable or energetic.
The way that the film is boldly shot and edited, too, gives it real stamina – Wheatley is smart to keep the camera relatively close to his characters, rather than panning out to give us a wider view of the warehouse as you would see in a more conventional action movie. It forces you to relate more to their individual experiences, feel what they are feeling, as though you are down in the rubble with them.
Free Fire really showcases Wheatley’s strengths and I am excited to see what he does next. The visual aesthetic, writing style, choice of time period and mix of genres all combine in just the right way to make this a fun and affecting watch that will leave you chuckling long after you have left the cinema.
Review by Jade O’Halloran
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