Along with Guy Ritchie and Neil Marshall, one of the most original, exciting English filmmakers of the past 15-plus years has to be Ben Wheatley. All three started with action-thrillers of one kind or another, Ritchie with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch; Marshall with horror (Dog Soldiers and The Descent), science-fiction (Doomsday) and history (Centurion); Wheatley with unusual comic thrillers (Kill List and Sightseers).
Ritchie is probably the biggest name now, though his last two films (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) had big budgets but diminished imagination. Marshall has been sidelined with TV series, including episodes of Game of Thrones and Westworld.
Wheatley, on the other hand, returns to his indie roots with Free Fire right after the critically acclaimed High Rise (2015), based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, which marked his first major budget and big-name cast, including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller.
And he still hasn’t missed a beat.
Like Ritchie and Marshall, Wheatley also writes his own films, only in his case, it’s in tandem with his wife Amy Jump. An exception is High Rise, the only film so far adapted from another source. For that, Wheatley ran the camera and Jump went solo on the script.
Back on the same page in Free Fire, Wheatley and Jump fashion a wild, free-wheeling shoot-’em-up peppered equally with bullets and wit. Quite literally, you never know what’s coming or who’s next to be shot—and you can’t wait to see.
Though set in Boston in the late ’70s, the movie was actually filmed in England, almost entirely within an abandoned warehouse. Wheatley said one reason he chose that particular time period was the absence of cell phones. A landline phone turns out to be a key plot device.
The action adheres closely to the classical unities as far as time, action and place. A group of IRA subversives has a scheduled meet to buy contraband from arms dealers, the transaction masterminded in part by the film’s only woman. Heading the IRA operatives are long-time Wheatley favorite Michael Smiley (Kill List, A Field in England) as Frank, assisted by Cillian Murphy (in a mustache) as Chris. Their not-too-competent cohort includes knuckleheaded Stevo (Sam Riley) and his buddy Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).
On the other side of the exchange are the firearms sellers, led by testy South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his motley cronies: Harry (Jack Reynor), Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). Brokering the deal on either side are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson).
The initial negotiations and money exchange are proceeding smoothly enough when a fracas between two guys on opposite sides suddenly erupts into the “free fire” of the title, everyone on one side shooting at everyone on the other, and no one escaping unmarked or unscathed.
And just when you thought things couldn’t be any more confusing, bloody and comic, two snipers abruptly start taking pot shots at antagonists on both sides. The unknown shooters’ role in a double-cross gone terribly wrong every way possible isn’t revealed until the end. Even then, the surprises keep coming.
The action in Free Fire is chaotic, but the clever script and dynamic direction are anything but. The dialogue is equally profane and comic, in every case exactly suited to the particular characters. Copley and Riley have two standout roles as the loudest, wackiest of the bullet-crazed crooks. At the same time, the filmmakers have generously spread the wealth among the ensemble cast, all of whom seem to revel in the mayhem.
Oscar-winner Larson (Room) struts her stuff as the mercenary Justine, for whom Murphy’s Chris has the hots. Still unsure of her, the IRA patriot asks if she’s really with the FBI. Replies the unfazed Justine, “No, I’m I.I.F.M.—In It For Myself.” And how! as the would-be lover eventually discovers.
Hammer (The Lone Ranger, J. Edgar) is a major delight, revealing a brilliant deadpan comic touch as ultra-cool, ultra-chic Ord who, at one point, reacts to the mayhem around him by firing up a joint. He also has some of the funniest lines in what is a very funny script.
Less crude and raw than Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, to which it might bear a surface comparison, Free Fire is another effort of Jump/Wheatley at their diabolically clever best. Their next film, Freak Shift, is slotted for 2018, again with Armie Hammer, as well as Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl). Its plot is said to be about “a gang of misfits” who “hunt down and kill underground, nocturnal monsters.”
I can’t wait.