Free Fire: spoiler-free review
From the outset, let's be very clear; this is the best film Quentin Tarantino never made.
When I saw High Rise early last year, I was impressed by the adaptation of JG Ballard's novel. I was also impressed by direction of a young director from Essex of whom I had no previous knowledge, Ben Wheatley. High Rise divided audiences into two familiar camps - those who loved it and those who loathed it. It was rare to find anyone on the fence. As a fan of Doctor Who, I was reminded that the novel upon which the film is based, influenced the 1987 Doctor Who story Paradise Towers, starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor. The film's director, Ben Wheatley, directed two episodes of Doctor Who in 2014, Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, starring Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. All of this circuitously brings us to Free Fire.
Set in Boston in 1978, some IRA operatives (although this is never explicitly mentioned) meet up with a gang of gun-runners to purchase weapons. There is an edginess to the meeting from the get-go. The unease increases when the guns turn out to be AR17s and not the M16s ordered. Tension boils over when it transpires that one of the hired hands had gotten into a fight the previous night with one of the gun-seller's party and one takes a shot at the other. Thus ensues a 74 minute gun-fight which is the body of the movie. A fight for survival ensues.
For a low-budget film filmed in Brighton, we have a very strong cast here including; Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor and Patrick Bergin. The strong Irish cast ensures the accents are spot on and the brogue is full-on. The cast and their motives are slowly revealed as each is wounded. We see how they react to injury or the portent of death. The gun-fight is choreographed beautifully and the editing feeds the flow and direction. Despite the fact that we as viewers are clear of who is trying to shoot who, at one point one of the shooters asks of no one in particular - "who's side am I on?". It feeds into the humour of the film which is both dark and light.
Each character is diverse and a joy to watch. From Copley's unhinged behaviour to Hammer's obsession with his beard, to Murphy's single-minded focus; each fills out their characters and while we never get to hear back-stories we are left with no doubt as to their motivations, not through dialogue but through action. It's a skill that only an ensemble of this class can deliver.
A word on the sound editing: it is stunning. The enclosed environment of the warehouse amplifies and sharpens the crack of each gunshot. While Tarantino might have poured buckets of blood into each scene, Wheatley is restrained with the bloodshed. The violence is not watered down and every shot is visceral.
I don't say this lightly. Free Fire is one of the freshest films you will see this year. I suspect though, like High Rise this film will divide audiences. I know which side of the fence I'm on.