Ben Wheatley is one of the world’s best new directors. Underseen but not underappreciated, Wheatley stormed the arthouse scene with his kitchen sink gangster drama, Down Terrace. Then he followed it up with his arguable horror/drama masterpiece, Kill List. While he has never made something as commanding and haunting as his sophomore film, Wheatley never made a boring film. Each film demanded the attention of the viewer to make the films as powerful as they could be. After five films of varying critical success, the British director has set his sights on the gangster/action film in Free Fire to mostly successful results.
Boston, 1978. 10 criminals gather together in a dilapidated warehouse to broker a gun deal between the IRA (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and a couple of shady gun dealers (Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay). When a personal conflict between two goons (Jack Reynor, Sam Riley) brings the deal to a halt, everyone has to hide and look out for themselves. Mediator Justine (Brie Larson) has to try and broker peace in between all the gunfire along with the overconfidence of Ord (Armie Hammer).
One of the many wonderful things about Ben Wheatley is how he can jump from one genre to the next with ease while retaining the signature thing that makes the director as unique as he is. With all of his films, Wheatley is able to balance a sense of naturalism along with whatever genre tropes he would use for each of his films. In a Reddit AMA that occurred on opening day, Wheatley announced Evil Dead 2 and After Hours along with “many many more” as influences upon the film. Neither of those films seem to be apparent influences on a surface level, but he is able to adapt the darkly comic tone into the action/comedy he presents here. It’s not surprising that he uses a lot of comedy in the film. While he may be known in some circles as self-serious, that would be a severe misunderstanding of all of his work. High-Rise, Wheatley’s latest film, may be his most well known film due to its star power, but that film would not make his sense of humor evident. Free Fire certainly rectifies that.
Wheatley and his wife, frequent collaborator Amy Jump, really knock the script out of the park. Among all the great lines, character dynamics and arcs are present throughout moments of gunfire and various other flashes of violence. Certain actors are given more to do, but even the ones that don’t have a lot do a great job of making a small part something fun. I don’t want to make it sound like anyone is bad in the film (Brie Larson is underwhelming however), but there are at least four performances that steal the show from time to time. Sharlto Copley is, once again, having a great time playing another complete idiot who is out of his element. Same can be said for Armie Hammer as the distractingly handsome (and bearded) Ord. We’ve seen Hammer really command the screen in The Social Network and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, but his charisma fits in perfectly with the dynamic and style of the film. I’ll always be happy to see Sam Riley from Control in anything, but he does a fantastic job as a despicable junkie. And Jack Reynor continues to surprise after Sing Street, this time doing his best Seth Rogen impression (I mean that in the best way possible).
As I watched the film for a second time in a Thursday night preview showing, I recognized a comparison to another film I will not be comfortable with. What other film than Free Fire features a group of criminals arguing and cracking jokes in a warehouse with multiple levels of betrayal and gunplay. That would be none other than Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs. While the basic premise and a few other plot elements would seem to be quite similar, the tone couldn’t be more different. Time for everyone to tune out when I tell you that Reservoir Dogs thinks it’s more clever than it actually is. That’s something I don’t think Free Fire would ever be accused of. I’m not trying to say that latter film isn’t smart in any way. But what Wheatley gets right here is injecting the intelligence into the filmmaking. Wheatley’s direction is still as confident as ever and despite the fact that he’s never directed a full on action film, this film goes to show that he’s competent enough to show up most other action directors working today.
What I’ve loved about Wheatley’s work up to this point is how successful he is with any genre he decides to go after. Veteran Wheatley fans may be disappointed with the lack of themes or metaphor, but we should cherish the moment an art-house director gets out there to make a straight up action/comedy romp. While I will detest any opinion that compares this to any of the Tarantino knock-offs to the late 90’s to early 00’s, I can understand why it would be made. I find it quite lazy, but there’s also a level of flattery that must be appreciated with that comparison. I’d argue that Wheatley makes this genre exercise his own, but some will obviously not agree. Aside from that, Free Fire may not claim the importance of other films on the market now, but it’s a damn great distraction.
- Acting from multiple members of the ensemble are absolutely terrific
- Direction by Ben Wheatley is entertainingly stylized without being distracting
- Writing from Wheatley and Amy Jump is fast-paced and witty
- Action is frequently tense and thrilling
- Occasionally feels overly familiar
- Some could argue that due to a lack of thematic content, it would be one of Wheatley's lesser works