WITH six feature films under his belt since his 2009 debut Down Terrace, Ben Wheatley is one of the most prolific directors of our time.
Each of his wildly different projects has been met with considerable critical praise (from those who could stomach his proclivity toward excessive violence and enigmatic narratives), each creeping closer toward the mainstream without sacrificing the director’s unique idiosyncrasy.
Last year’s JG Ballard adaptation, High-Rise, was a further jump away from the fringes of filmmaking, packing a high-profile cast with big names such as Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller.
Still, based as it was on a Ballard novel, High-Rise was all kinds of crazy: violent, perverse, frantic in narrative and occasionally a chore to follow.
With yet another star-laden cast, Free Fire (Cert 18, 90 mins) maintains that trademark penchant for violence and grit, but pushes affairs more into the mainstream than ever before.
Wheatley offers up a (relatively) straightforward crime flick, set in Boston in the 1970s and localised entirely in a single location in real time: a secluded warehouse in the aftermath of an arms deal gone south.
An executive producer credit for Martin Scorsese in the opening credits should hint at where Wheatley is drawing inspiration.
With a toe-tapping classic rock soundtrack, starting with The Real Kid’s Do the Boob, there’s a tone here that recalls the sarcastic wit of Scorsese’s later era crime-classics, partnered with the grit of Peter Yates’ 1973 gem, The Friend of Eddie Coyle.
However, for all its violence, Free Fire is a much more light-hearted affair – slick, simple and seriously funny.
Justine (Brie Larson) arrives at a warehouse with two Irishmen, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), to broker an arms deal with a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer).
When a disagreement escalates, shots are fired and chaos erupts.
Once the action begins, the shooting rarely abates for the entirety of Free Fire’s run time. The gunshots are mercilessly loud, invariably ringing out like bomb blasts with every squeeze of a trigger.
At first the effect is alarming, refreshing even – as are the effects those gunshots have on their victims, who spend most of the action crawling from cover to cover rather than running about beneath a hail of bullets.
The enthusiastic cast turn in enormously watchable performances – of particular note are Smiley and Copley, as a grizzled, uptight IRA man and an eccentric, former Rhodesian special forces figure, respectively.
Both men are two ends of a tightly round length of barbed-wire, ready to snap at any point and incredibly fun to watch.
The script, co-written with Wheatley’s writing partner and wife, Amy Jump, is laden with perverse wit, profanity and biting sarcasm – infinitely quotable and, if the Gods are good, likely to afford Free Fire some sort of cult-status in the near future.
The chaotic nature of the film, along with the realism instilled in the gunshot wounds, allow Free Fire to meander and lose focus around the beginning of its third act.
When the narrative begins to ramble, the loss of focus is accompanied with a perfectly suited free-jazz score from composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
Accordingly, everything feels natural and intentional – very Wheatley.
This may not be Wheatley at his best; indeed, it’s perhaps his most unremarkable film. Regardless, at its loudest chaos and quietest respite, Free Fire is an excellently composed film from a director who is steadily becoming a modern master of the form.