For years, Ben Wheatley (‘Kill List’, ‘High-Rise’) has established himself as one of the best genre filmmakers on the planet. He’s dabbled in crime, horror, comedy, and even more esoteric art house fare. He has a morbid wit and intellectual ambition along with a rabid film junkie’s sense of genre games. On a certain level, Wheatley’s latest feature, ‘Free Fire’, is his least ambitious directorial effort to date, yet it’s also his most purely entertaining and accessible.
The film is essentially a contained action movie, kind of like his take on a John Carpenter flick. Wheatley’s aesthetics are completely different, but his film is just as focused, cynical, character-driven, and viscerally effective as Carpenter’s early work. It’s the sort of thing that should become a cult movie and will likely earn Wheatley a wider audience in the process.
The setup is simple: In 1978 Boston, an arms deal is arranged between some IRA heavies and a gang of local goons. Cillian Murphy and Wheatley muse Michael Smiley play the visiting violent activists. Brie Larson is the middle-woman, Armie Hammer the wiseass hired hand to ensure safety, Sharlto Copley is the South African arms dealer with the goods, and folks like Sam Riley and Tom Davis play local Boston hot heads brought on as muscle. The guns aren’t the ones that were ordered, the locals have beef no one predicted, and everyone is a little hot under the collar. The next thing you know, there’s a standoff in the middle of an abandoned warehouse with plenty of available firepower and raging tempers to stoke the flames.
Things get messy fast. Wheatley gleefully introduces all of his eccentric characters and gradually ratchets up the tension. Right away, conflict between seemingly every character boils over in an instant. The tone bounces between the hilariously profane and the viciously violent. The movie opens carefully crafted, but then the director’s patented handheld anarchy takes over when bullets are fired and blood is spilled.
Performances are fantastic across the board (particularly from Copley and Hammer’s dingbat scene-stealers). It’s ace entertainment, exquisitely made by a team of filmmakers and actors with A-level credentials deliberately dabbling in B-movie thrills.
‘Free Fire’ is pure nasty entertainment, delivered by a filmmaker who knows exactly how to generate thrills and craft believable humans caught in the crossfire. The movie won’t win awards (despite the involvement of Martin Scorsese as producer), but it will offer tremendous appeal to a certain audience that craves this sort of down and dirty genre picture. Expect big laughs and screams from any audience diving into Wheatley’s latest, and hopefully some box office success will come along with the ride. This guy is good enough to deserve a larger canvas to deliver his twisted vision next time.