BFI LFF 2016: FREE FIRE (2016)

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a Tarantino-esque splatterfest of bullets and bad jokes.

The Pardoner's Tale

by Alexa Dalby

Free Fire

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In a warehouse in Boston in 1978, a group of IRA men arrive at night to buy a consignment of guns from a South African arms dealer, in a deal brokered by a mercenary American woman. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, they ordered M-16s but as IRA man Chris (Cillian Murphy, Anthropoid) points out, the South African arms salesman Vernon (Shalto Copley, in a ludicrously inappropriate Saturday Night Fever-style suit and a comic South African accent) is trying to palm them off with an inferior product. Go-between Justine (Brie Larson, a long way from Room in this role) and Ord (Armie Hammer, playing far from Nocturnal Animals here) persuade the IRA to seal the deal nevertheless.

All seems to be going to plan, the merchandise is tested and a briefcase full of dollar bills is handed over, until one of the operatives from the sellers’ group (Jack Reynor as manic Harry, unrecognisable from Transformers) recognises one of the IRA team (Stevo, Sam Riley) as someone who has bottled his cousin the night before and put her in hospital. Erupting with a desire for violent retribution, he fires at him and mayhem immediately breaks out. The subsequent gun battle between the two opposing sides takes up the rest of the film. It mainly happens at ground level – nobody’s a good shot so everyone gets wounded in the legs and ends up crawling on the filthy floor. Their desire to eliminate the others takes precedence over anything rational. Combatants also feature Kill List collaborator Michael Smiley as IRA group leader Frank and Babou Ceesay as Martin, with an appearance by Tom Davis (Prevenge).

The acclaimed Kill List and Sightseers director in this eagerly awaited film has reverted to his more violent and comically dark themes after his venture into JG Ballard’s High-Rise. Together with his constant collaborator and screenwriter Amy Jump, their spirited editing creates a kind of poetry of cacophony out of the rhythm of flying bullets. There are around a dozen people on various sides indiscriminately shooting at each other for almost an hour and a half and one of them queries “I forgot whose side I’m on” – and that’s the point.

Post-1978, mobile phones would have found a quick way out of the bloodshed, but there’s no such brake on it here. It’s only when a traditional phone suddenly rings out in an empty office in the deserted warehouse that the combatants see a faint hope of getting out of the situation alive.

It’s Wheatley’s sixth film. It’s tightly choreographed with some knowing, throwaway dialogue and it must have demanded some very physical performances from its quirky characters. However, to devote basically the complete film to a single gun battle, no matter how original or intricate, is an audacious move for him.

Free Fire screens on 16 October 2016 as the Closing Night Gala of the BFI London Film Festival.


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