Film review | Free Fire: The accidental warehouse war

With Free Fire, husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump have ensured that their pitch-black sense of humour and strict command of the cinematic idiom allows them to craft a morally vacant black comedy about a gun deal gone terribly, terribly wrong • 4/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
18 April 2017, 9:26am
With a game cast and a tight premise that’s executed with precision and aplomb, Free Fire is that rare and refreshing thing: a slice of unabashed entertainment that is calibrated to get the most out of its constricted setting and simple plot structure
With a game cast and a tight premise that’s executed with precision and aplomb, Free Fire is that rare and refreshing thing: a slice of unabashed entertainment that is calibrated to get the most out of its constricted setting and simple plot structure
The husband-and-wife British filmmaking team of Ben Wheatley (director) and Amy Jump (screenwriter) have been responsible for some of the most exciting genre films to emerge in the second decade of the 21st century. With Kill List and Sightseers and A Field in England, they have redefined what could be described as ‘folk horror’ – that particularly English blend of rural landscapes which emanate a grisly underbelly – and most recently, they let their ambition soar with High Rise, a spirited adaptation of the JG Ballard novel of the same name.

With Free Fire, the couple’s most US-centric film to date, the pair have scaled back their formal ambition somewhat, while also ensuring that their pitch-black sense of humour and strict command of the cinematic idiom allows them to craft a morally vacant but entirely entertaining black comedy about a gun deal gone terribly, terribly wrong.

It should have been a simple enough exchange. Two IRA members, Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) need to get their hands on some M-16s to aid their cause, and they arrange a deal with the loquacious South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), who sets a meeting in an abandoned warehouse ‘somewhere in America’, and is flanked by his business partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) and the bearded, sly fixer Ord (Armie Hammer) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), with Harry (Jack Reynor) driving their truck. Frank and Chris, on their part, are helped along by Justine (Brie Larson), who shares a history with Vernon, while Frank’s junkie son-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley) is charged with driving duties along with his buddy Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). 

But when it’s revealed that the guns are not what the IRA men ordered, the tension starts to ramp up. And when two of the parties’ number also reveal they’ve been in a bar brawl the night before, things escalate to a dangerous degree... not least because each member of this tense gathering is also armed to the teeth.

When it’s revealed that the guns are not what the IRA men ordered, the tension starts to ramp up
When it’s revealed that the guns are not what the IRA men ordered, the tension starts to ramp up
While it’s something of a sharp departure for Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s previous cinematic foray – a thorough if not entirely successful take on Ballard’s merciless social satire, High Rise – it certainly partakes in that film’s indulgence in the 1970s milieu, and its dim view of humanity finds echoes in all of their work. But a lightness of touch pervades even the grisliest of set pieces, which guarantees an entertaining ride for those partial to a spot of black humour derived from bodily harm. While the enclosed space can readily echo Tarantino’s Oscar courting latest, The Hateful Eight, Jump and Wheatley’s realistic approach to bullet wounds (aka, they tend to fester for a long time before killing you off) also brings to mind the long drawn-out and pained shuffling of Reservoir Dogs. 

But perhaps a more interesting point of reference would actually be the zaniest piece of work in the couple’s oeuvre. A Field in England similarly places a group of anti-social miscreants in a limited space and allows them to bicker and do violence on each other until the worst demons of their nature lead to their collective demise, of sorts. It’s a far trippier beast than the meat-and-potatoes Free Fire, but it carries over the same self-destructive glee and – probably by dint of a sly running commentary on Amy Jump’s part – a mockery of the posturing masculine ego.

In fact, while virtually none of characters could be described as sympathetic – a clever move on the part of the filmmaking duo given how rapidly shifting allegiances are part and parcel of what makes this film such fun – Brie Larson’s Justine emerges as a nimble and knowing figure who is used to taking a lot of crap from her erstwhile male colleagues, and she’s easy enough to root for as the bullets continue to fly in whichever direction.

With a game cast and a tight premise that’s executed with precision and aplomb, Free Fire is that rare and refreshing thing: a slice of unabashed entertainment that is calibrated to get the most out of its constricted setting and simple plot structure. While it may not show off the full extent of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s often dazzling and visionary powers, it makes for a fun time at the movies. And for a change, this is the kind of fun that can be enjoyed by adults. Adults, only.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...