The moment Cillian Murphy’s character fires the first startling bullet of Free Fire, there is no break in the violent chaos that ensues between three parties in an abandoned warehouse. A pair of earplugs might suit some audience members well; though it’s likely that without the aid of hearing, the complex tensions between the characters would quickly become unclear. Although Free Fire is, on the surface, an hour and a half of solid shooting, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump compensate for the little there is in the way of plot with a nuanced, hilarious script. Such humour is reminiscent of Wheatley’s 2012 horror-comedy Sightseers that saw the summer holiday of two North-face ramblers develop into a murderous rampage across the National Trust landscape of England. Free Fire is, on paper, a standard action movie. On film, it is an intelligent and funny update on the archetypal shoot-em-ups that have passed through cinemas for decades.
Free Fire chronicles the conflicts of interest that arise when two prominent members of the IRA, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), meet with South-African business man Vernon (Sharlto Copley) to fulfil an arms deal. The deal is mediated (rather ineffectively) by middle-men Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). When an internal fight breaks out between gang factotums Harry (Jack Reynor) and Stevo (Sam Riley), the fire turns from friendly to, well, free. Initially, the conflict is clear and the gangs are easily divided, but as the violence progresses exponentially, so do the criminals desires to survive. Each man is out for himself, and the drama takes a rather Agatha Christie style turn as gunners are taken out one by one. Who will be the last man standing?
What might at first sound like the offspring of an upper-middle class Knightsbridge couple or the ingredients to a Heston Blumenthal recipe – Brie, Armie, Cillian, Sharlto – are, in fact, the cast of the movie. Names aside, there is not a single fault to be found in any of their performances. Sharlto Copley gives an uproarious performance in which he exaggerates every South African-ism in as witty and observational a manner as Wheatley can allow. Brie Larson shines with the benefit of a script that plays to her abilities, the antithesis of the limiting and claustrophobically clichéd script Jordan Vogt-Roberts forces on her in Kong: Skull Island. Cillian Murphy presents, as always, a genuinely intriguing and multifaceted character (if I were a theatre director I might compliment his “light and shade, darling, light and shade”). Perhaps the best performance comes from a British actor I’ve loved for a while now, Babou Ceesay. He plays Martin, Vernon’s right-hand man. Ceesay gives us the self-righteousness of ‘70s gangster’; Martin takes himself very seriously. This makes his inevitable downfall irresistibly funny. Free Fire emphasises the versatility of Ceesay’s talent, as he gave spectacularly different performances in National Treasure and Damilola, Our Loved Boy. Both of which I would recommend highly – the latter is essential.
To make the inevitable comparison to the filmography of Tarantino would be insulting to Wheatley’s imaginative style. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, another film whose crux involves a lengthy shoot-out, lacked the genuine humour that Wheatley injects into Free Fire with relish. There is a certain expectation audiences have from a Wheatley picture; a piquancy that is achieved in satisfyingly gory means. Wheatley’s appetite for such stylish drama differentiates Free Fire from a game of paintball – he remains one of my all-time favourite directors. His latest picture is up there High-Rise and, one of my favourite films to ever have been made, Sightseers. For some, uninterrupted gunfire and infantile taunts might not be enough to sustain one hour and a half of film but, for me, it’s all I need.