Without a doubt, Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting British filmmakers working today. Since his debut feature, the 2009 Down Terrace, the director has proven himself a versatile talent through the likes of the deeply disturbing Kill List, the darkly comic Sightseers and the sociopolitical High-Rise. Yet for all of his extraordinary talent, his career has always remained on the periphery of the mass audiences, his work usually far too independent or different to make any real impact on the wider filmgoers consciousness. That’s all about to change, however, with his latest offering, Free Fire, proving to be his most accessible, most entertaining and most crowd-pleasing picture to date.
It’s a scene we’ve all seen at some point: a rundown warehouse sat on the edge of some city’s docks, where the bad guys are meeting to carry out some dodgy exchange. But whereas this all usually plays out for one sequence or finale of a film, here the idea is expanded out and developed to a full-length feature – the film runs at a breezy 90-minutes and is described by the director as “mercifully short”.
The bad guys in question this time around are a lethal combination of IRA and Arms dealers, brought together to do a deal which quickly goes south when things becomes a little too personal. Anarchy quickly ensures, bullets begin to fly, and the deal suddenly turns into a mad dash for survival.
It’s a high-concept idea, simple but nevertheless incredibly difficult to get right. Fortunately for us, the script from Wheatley and long-term collaborator (partner) Amy Jump, is so strong that it’s virtually bulletproof. Jokes are fired off quicker than the barrage of assault rifles and pistols that feature, and the cast of characters firing them are among some of the most despicable, most enjoyable and most memorable bunch you’ll more than likely see in cinema this year.
It helps no end that they are brought to life by an extraordinarily talented bunch of performers. The standout, the one actor everybody will be talking about afterwards, is surely Shartlo Copley’s Vernon; a flashy, Savile Row-wearing Arms dealer who has you laughing before he’s even said a word. His is such a special performance, one of his best to date, that it’ll no doubt be referenced by film fans for sometime.
Supporting are Armie Hammer, who plays his role of the charming and handsome Ord with unsurprising ease, a gloriousy unhinged Sam Riley, a top form Cillian Murphy and the ever-brilliant Brie Larson to name but a few highlights from what is a stellar cast across the board.
Ultimately, however, the real success of the film comes right back to the writing. Afterall, this is certainly not as visually remarkable as some of Wheatley’s previous work – High-Rise standing out as his most visually-arresting film so far – even though the 70’s fashion and hair adds to what feels like a textured film of its time. It looks and feels like something Scorsese would have made back in the day, which is no real surprise considering his producer credit, but is otherwise pretty unremarkable.
The cast are superb, but it’s the fact that an idea such as this is so wonderfully and cleverly executed that will stick with you perhaps longest of all. The way in which tension is continually built within the confides of one location and concept shows real skill from the writers, but more than that, the rich and rounded characters, the dark wit and feminist undertones of the screenplay are what make Free Fire such an exceptional achievement.
Free Fire is released in UK cinemas on 31st March.