In my annual post of the top ten best films of the year (based on UK release dates), I named High-Rise as my favourite of 2016. Now co-writer/director Ben Wheatley follows this up with Free Fire which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where it won the prestigious People’s Choice Best Midnight Madness award. The film also had the honour of closing the 60th London Film Festival in October 2016.
The setting is a run-down, abandoned harbourside warehouse, one night in 1970s Boston, Massachusetts where IRA dealmaker Chris (Cillian Murphy) and his motley crew of loveable rogues are led through the broken glass and dusty walkways by middleman Ord (Armie Hammer), towards their rendezvous with South African gun-runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) – “he was misdiagnosed as a child genius and never got over it” – we learn from the enigmatic Justine (Brie Larson).
Murphy and co want to buy some guns. Vernon and his cronies are in the market to sell some. A simple trade should take place, but when the deal goes south, a 12-way shootout ensues and doesn’t stop until the final cut to black.
The challenge Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump face however, is how to make a shoot-out film (which is all this really is, let’s be honest), exciting, entertaining and tense. Fortunately both the script and performances are more than good enough to justify the ninety minute running time and keep the audience satisfied throughout.
Alongside Murphy on the IRA side is grizzled Frank (long-time collaborator Michael Smiley), and the muscle Stevo and Bernie, with half a brain cell between them (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti), while Vernon’s associates include Harry (Jack Reynor), Martin (Babou Ceesay) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). I know that’s only 10 shooters, but Wheatley has one or two more tricks up his sleeve, causing Reynor to ask, despairingly: “Who the f— is shooting at us now?!”
Plaudits must go to both cinematographer Laurie Rose who gives us a claustrophobic, almost Western feel, and sound designer Martin Pavey who makes sure we flinch and jump at every shot as the bullets richochet around the warehouse.
Deaths, bloody and gruesome are deserved. You don’t like these characters, they’re a bunch of clowns and deserve their fate, but it’s not your average Hollywood shoot-out and while it gestures to Peckinpah and Tarantino on occassions, it’s very much Wheatley and Jump’s baby; the dark, comic humour carrying it over the line. No blanks fired here.