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Film Review: Free Fire @ London Film Festival 2016

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★★★★☆

Offbeat Brit Ben Wheatley takes his own unique brand of dark laughs across the pond for his sixth feature, but still shows absolutely no signs of selling out just yet. 

Ever since Kill List rocketed its way into the nightmares of the cinema-going public some five years ago now, Wheatley has been a hot topic, delivering frame after blood-soaked frame of edgy, cultish and unmistakably British delights. And even as he graduates to a slightly bigger market, the focus remains still thankfully, on his own tastes and triumphs. 

Free Fire, for example, a Martin Scorsese-produced, Boston-set crime flick set in the throws of the 1970s, keeps things extraordinarily simple. A deserted warehouse, two gangs and an arms-deal gone south; there really isn’t a lot to it.

But between the ridiculously impressive cast (including, but not limited to: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor and Michael Smiley) and a fun-fuelled scrip from Wheatley and partner Amy Jump, things never once turn stale. 

It’s still not quite the big-name studio movie you might at first assume (largely British money and a few lucky deals - Larson was signed before her Oscar win), but Free Fire is an unavoidable step-up for the fast-rising director. Whilst there’s significantly less of his usual psychedelic visuals, and the American setting curbs his standard British tastes somewhat, this is still indisputably a Ben Wheatley film, and certainly one with a slightly wider audience in mind.  

As great as they remain, the likes of High Rise and A Field In England never seemed to quite register with the public as well as we might’ve hoped, and this latest effort is certainly a turn towards the more simplistic side of things.

It boils down to what is essentially a ten minute set-up and an eighty-minute shootout between a motley crew of fast-talking, dry-witted and larger-than-life characters. 

Copley is an unavoidable stand-out as the motor-mouthed South African dealer, whilst Hammer is a surprisingly charming treat, and the much more straight-faced Murphy helps to hold the whole thing together rather decently. Also top of the pack is an unusual turn from the often left-out Sam Riley, but as you might expect, with a cast this expansive, not everyone quite gets their time to shine, and Wheatley can at times, be far too precious with the characters overall. 

With a roster that bloats to as much as twelve active shooters at its height, Free Fire starts to rather expectedly wobble a little in the middle, as gang borders dissolve and a seriously messy free-for-all takes over. Everyone gets shot by everyone and minus the occasional, much-needed curveball, it can all just be a bit too much to follow. 

Larson’s lone female seems to take the hit the biggest, often disappearing for a little too long at a time, whilst others splinter off into their own factions, making for some pretty jumpy editing too. Luckily, Jump and Wheatley’s script does help to ground things considerably though, and even as the film hobbles towards an invisible third act, the jokes keep flying thick and fast, reminding us all that the reality of this is that really, it’s just a bit of fun. 

We’re a little too used to looking much too deeply into not just Wheatley’s work, but the films of any newbie British auteur like him; so when he eventually does just want to kick back with a warehouse full of blood and bullets, it can at first feel a little bit jarring. But when you look at it as a single-standing slice of darkly funny mayhem, Free Fire ticks almost all of the boxes. Think of it as Reservoir Dogs if they just got on with it and shot each other. 

There’s really not much else to it. Like guns? Like people shooting guns? Have a sense of humour? Free Fire’s for you. And whilst some might get a little too irked by just how straight-forward the whole thing is, it’s certainly a gigantic leap in a more crowd-pleasing direction for Wheatley and co.. 

Free Fire  was screened as part of the 60th BFI London Film Festival this October. It’s due to be released in the UK by Studiocanal on 31st March 2017. 

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