Achieving the ultimate accolade for a director, Ben Wheatley has quickly created a brand-name career for himself, all the more remarkable as his films defy genres and are never quite what they seem.
His latest – after Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers and High Rise – is called Free Fire and as soon as the bullets start going off, you can see (and hear) why that is.
A great cast assemble in cool clothes, all converging in one spot, a deserted warehouse down by the docks of what feels like a dirty American city. It might be Boston. There are Irish gangsters here (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley), come to buy arms off a gobby South African (Sharlto Copley), all fixed by the beautiful Justine (Brie Larsson, the only woman in the picture) and her oppo Ord, played by handsome Armie Hamer. It could be the 1970s and it could be about the IRA, but such details are left vague.
Various other goons, heavies and gunslingers get involved (watch out for a grizzled Patrick Bergin). The rat-a-tat dialogue of the first 30 minutes soon gives way – thanks to nervy trigger fingers and a grudge between the henchmen played by Sam Riley and Jack Reynor – to a barrage of bullets as, over the next hour, Wheatley choreographs a mega gunfight, possibly the longest in movie history.
You think it can’t possibly go on like this for the rest of the movie: the guns and bullets seem to talk to each other, replacing the dialogue. Meanwhile, they also hit their targets, ripping into legs and shoulders, leaving the characters crawling in the rubble, bleeding but all determined to get the case of money that now lies in the no man’s land of dust between them all, just out of reach.
There’s dark humour here. “I’ve forgotten whose side I’m on,” wails one voice in the dirt. You’ll think most likely of Tarantino, though there are inevitable shades of Sam Peckinpah and westerns such as John Houston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Either way, these are pretty good names to fire off, as is Martin Scorsese, who helped bring the project to life as executive producer.
I’m not a full-out Wheatley devotee. High Rise did my head in, A Field in England lost the plot. But as a stylist he’s got skills and gifts: Free Fire is loud and brilliantly designed, spatially and sonically, with an excellent original score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.
Does it mean anything more than its surface suggests? There’s certainly a feral quality to Free Fire, an “In It For Myself” attitude that seems to chime with the current political vibe, the anarchy of Brexit and Trump, although it was made before the full explosive shock of either set in.
Yet, essentially, there’s also empathy in Wheatley’s depiction of these snakes in a barrel. You somehow get to know all the characters, even finding shreds of feeling for them, despite their selfishness and brutal idiocy. And I bet you’ll never listen to John Denver the same way again.