In the dead of night in an abandoned dock building in Boston, 1978, Justine (Brie Larson), a well-connected businesswoman has facilitated a deal between some amateur IRA militants (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley) and vainglorious international gunrunners (Arnie Hammer, Sharlto Copley). It is supposed to be a straight swap of a van of M16s and a suitcase packed with dollars, but tensions are high and one of the periphery goons on either side of the deal recognise each other leading to an altercation where bullets are exchanged… for the next 90 minutes.
That is essentially the whole plot of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire: an extended shoot out in an old warehouse between rival egomaniacal criminal ‘gangs’. Yet it is so tightly scripted, acted and contained that it could have lasted another 60 minutes and still been engaging.
Wheatley has made some of the best, and most varied, UK films in the past decades: Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England and High Rise – all of which have been written and edited with his wife Amy Jump. I can only imagine how much fun that they must have had in mapping out this plot together, as its subtlety and simplicity all contained in one filthy warehouse is a joy.
As the gunfight unfolds, all of the participants get shot (spoiler alert!) and are left dragging themselves from cover to cover leaving blood trails and bullet holes in every direction. The rounds fired in Free Fire has to be up their with the best of them – such as your Starship Troopers, The Replacement Killers and Black Hawk Downs. – yet the violence is laced with a Tarantino-esque comedy (yawn for the Quentin reference, but it’s true) and there is a real egalitarianism over the distribution of bullets to bodies: everyone gets a few zingers…
The production design of the set and costumes are a mirror of the glitzy retro-futurism of last year’s slick High Rise and the dialogue and performances are as funny as the criminally underrated Sightseers. Arnie Hammer specifically as the narcissistic, ‘cool guy’ Ord and Sharlto Copley as the eccentric South African ‘70s-gangster-with-lapels are both really, really funny.
Free Fire arrives at a time when, unless your shooing another boring Marvel behemoth, smaller budgets require more austere production shoots. And keeping it all in house makes for a more exciting shootout than a million citywide super-villain showdowns – I shudder to think what a team of Hollywood execs would have done with the source material.
(I watched the film at the new BH2 Odeon at a preview screening - and I must give them props for their luxury seats... Bournemouth finally has a proper multiplex. Let's hope they keep showing good exclusive films)