Like High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire has left audiences and critics some-what split. Split over the authenticity of the picture, over the controversial topic of onscreen violence and over how contextually expansive a critically successful motion picture really needs to be.
Almost the entirety of the just 90-minute film takes place in an evacuated, decaying warehouse. The objective that requires such a location is an arms deal. On the side offering the weaponry, there is Vernon – an obliviously, eccentric, South African gangster – and his associate, Martin – a complete contrast to Vernon, until extraordinary circumstances deny him from being – the duo are played by Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay. Their two Hench men are Gordon and Harry, played by Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor. Forming the team that offer the money is Frank – a veteran of legally questionable activities – played by Michael Smiley, and his partner, Chris – a tenacious IRA agent – played by Cillian Murphy. Accompanying Frank and Chris are Stevo and Bernie, played by Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. The final two members of this expansive yet rich cast, are Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, who play two significantly more sophisticated negotiators.
The deal turns south when Harry and Stevo reignite a previous confrontation. The remaining and vast majority of the film is a shootout of perplexing intensity. Intention and loyalty both become increasingly obscured, the result being a whirlwind of wit, creative violence and sardonic humour.
The dialogue between characters at times is humorous for being completely antithetical to the brutalities occurring around them; it does feel, however, at times, forced and unnatural. The occasions the dialogue did hit, was through a rather simple emphasis on Sharlto Copley’s South African accent. The script that was originally written by Wheatley before being facilitated and made less intense by Amy Jump, still suffers in a project that appears increasingly unaware of its purpose. The result is a film that suffocates in pastiche, only bobbing its own authentic head above the surface ever-so occasionally.
The cinematography by Laurie Rose is not dissimilar to her previous work with Wheatley; professional, calculated and stylish. However, at times it gets undermined by an excessive amount of violence that serves, after a point, only as a distraction. The film’s performances are perfectly adequate, with a particularly impressive if not surprising display by Sam Riley.
The score too is seemingly acceptable but can’t quite distract you from the limitations of a film that is contextually hollow. However, a notable success of the picture is its sound design. When dealt with 90 minutes of bullets zipping around a warehouse they couldn’t have created a more immersive experience.
It is surprising then that Ben Wheatley, who has been gathering somewhat of a cult following for such authentic and auteur motion pictures as Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, has constructed a film that is so unsure of its own identity. Therefore, despite being at times humorous, frequently stylish, and on the surface ‘fun’, the film seems to suffer by not fully committing to gritty realism or macabre expressionism.