Ben Wheatley is one of the more intriguing British directors to follow. After making a huge impact with his sophomore film, occult horror Kill List, he has given cinema his warped take on the rom-com (Sightseers), historical epic (A Field in England) & sci-fi (High-Rise). With Free Fire, he reaches the action genre, and brings along a cast packed with some of the finest actors of their generation.
Free Fire tells a simple story about a deal going south between IRA dissidents (led by Cillian Murphy) and arms dealers (headed up by Sharlto Copley). Brimming with tension, complete with two players with a fraught off-screen past, the audience is immediately aware that proceedings will not go according to plan. The film plays out in near-real time and rarely leaving the confines of the Boston warehouse (shot in Brighton) the deal is taking place in. Free Fire feels laser-focused in its narrative, stripping away almost all items that do not pertain to the hour-and-a-half of proceedings. Early on Murphy's Chris states they need to forget (not the word he uses) 'the small talk. Let's buy some guns, hey?' Wheatley takes this to heart, and the stripped down nature is both a blessing and a curse for Free Fire.
This is an ensemble piece and it helps that the cast are uniformly strong, with several career-best performances. Brie Larson follows up her much deserved Oscar win with an icily cool performance as the only woman amongst the terrorists and arm dealers. Murphy is quietly charming, with shades of his Peaky Blinders persona, and Copley is the best he has been since District 9. But the standout is Armie Hammer, who brings a cool swagger you never knew he had and threatens to steal the film whenever he is on screen. This comes on the back of strong performances in Nocturnal Animals and The Birth of a Nation, and sees Hammer finally start to live up to the promise he showed in The Social Network.
On a technical level Wheatley brings his usual exquisite craft to proceedings. As the tension explodes into violence, Free Fire becomes one of the easiest action films to follow, even with proceedings taking place at various points in the warehouse. This is all down to the skills of the editing and cinematography giving the film a clear geography that is refreshing in the age of over-edited action sequences. It stands alongside John Wick as a prime example for how to craft great action.
Wheatley brings much of the team that has followed him throughout his career, with Free Fire sharing a writing partner, cinematographer, editor and various other members of the production side of the film. It is this consistency behind the scenes that always makes his films so compelling, sharing a DNA that gives them a consistent quality. The fact that, as well as directing, he shares editing and writing credits means Free Fire is very much a Ben Wheatley joint.
The main flaw with Free Fire is that it feels like such a slight film for Wheatley to direct. It almost feels like a direct response to the failings of High-Rise, a film brimming with ideas but lacking the basic narrative to bind the film together. There is no greater message to Free Fire - instead, it is a rather slender story to which Wheatley has brought his considerable technical expertise. It is this that elevates the film and makes a consistently enjoyable experience.
Although not quite at the level of Kill List (which stands as one of the best horrors of the past decade), Free Fire is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend your time in a cinema. It is worth seeing for the fabulous shoot-outs that Wheatley stages and for a career-best turn from Armie Hammer.