The director of Free Fire, Ben Wheatley, is on hot form. He directed High-Rise in 2015 and A Field in England before that, with a couple of Doctor Who episodes thrown into the mix too. Hailing from Billericay, Essex, Wheatley is the poster boy for British independent cinema and regularly works with companies based in the UK. Free Fire reunites Film4 and Rook Films (Field in England, Sightseers) and adds Protagonist Pictures, which launched in 2010 with Richard Ayoade’s Submarine.
Free Fire is a highly entertaining film — full of witty quips, bold and brilliant characters, and a slapstick confusion that is fully at home in the gangster film. Performances are strong from several actors who are each as flawed and ridiculous as the next. Specific nods should go to Brie Larson, who is as far from a Femme Fatale as one could be, and Sharlto Copley, who is as pathetic and self-serving as you’d expect an international gun salesman to be. Armie Hammer, fresh off the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E, again shows how easy it is for him to be cool. Michael Smiley teams up with Wheatley again after their time together in A Field in England and provides a nice respite from his crazy co-stars as the world weary Irish nationalist who is the most controlled of the ensemble.
The clever thing about Free Fire is its use of minimal locations. The film, set in a warehouse in Boston in 1978, opens with this setting, and we never leave. It’s nice to see filmmakers making more attempts to cleverly cut costs without detracting from the storytelling. We saw Buried a few years ago which played on this idea of limited location space but even it used flashbacks. With Free Fire the location has levels and stages. The film uses the whole warehouse; no space is left untouched by the carnage, and all of this adds to the chaos that is so expertly built. Wheatley offers the audience a “before” and “after” of the location, serving purely to highlight the carnage we witness.
You may think that limiting the locations and having the plot unfold over the course of only one night would allow for limited range of backstory and character development, but Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley have written a clever and concise script. There are numerous references to an event that happened the night before – a turning point which caused the meetup to go sour, as well as some time appropriate conversations that allow for historical knowledge to play a role in our understanding of the characters. Visually unlike usual ‘gangster’ films, Free Fire is bright and colourful; the clothing is typical of the time and black is seemingly forbidden. The environment, although just a warehouse, has more vibrancy than realism would allow but creates a character of itself with a yellow dusty floor as its main feature.
Made on a modest budget of ten million USD, Free Fire shows audiences the class and intellect of British independent filmmaking and continues Wheatley’s streak of high quality films. It’s unlikely to win any Oscars — or even BAFTAs, for that matter — but it’s a fun film and that’s something I like to see. It’s honest and entertaining — violent and funny. The cinematography from Laurie Rose (High-Rise) is clear and vibrant and shows a high technical quality. The story builds brilliantly to the breaking point and the ridiculousness of the breakdown is everything you could hope for. Free Fire is a film to watch with your friends; it’s a film to lighten your day; and it’s a film that seeks to entertain above all else. You can watch the film at the Gulbenkian Cinema at the Canterbury campus on Saturday the 27th of May and I highly recommend you do.
by Jack Wierenga
Free Fire will be showing at the Gulbenkian on Saturday 27th May 2017