Sunday, 16 October 2016

LFF 2016: Free Fire

I realise I'm in the minority here, but I'm afraid I still don't get Ben Wheatley. I look forward to each of his films, and every one - on paper, at least - seems like it's going to be The One that grabs me and shows me that the emperor is, indeed, fully clothed. But to me, all six of his admirably original features have felt like promising debuts; calling cards that give notice of a developing talent about to burst into bloom in a massive way. The latest of those, Free Fire, takes this notion so far that it strongly resembles the first film of another independent director who really did grab cinema by the balls and tug hard: set in a disused warehouse populated by a handful of amateur crooks trading gunshots and wisecracks, Wheatley's sixth film screams Tarantino, which is the last thing you'd expect from such a distinctive, unconventional voice.

Things begin well, as a roster of immediately well-drawn characters converge on the warehouse to carry out a weapons deal: Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA heavies buying guns from Sharlto Copley's unpredictable Vernon and Armie Hammer's smooth, cautious Ord; Justine (Brie Larson) is the go-between; Sam Riley, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor play the grunts whose only job is to drive the guns and money into and out of the warehouse. Wheatley is now at a stage where he can command a terrific cast like this, and it's that cast that saves Free Fire from monotony at several stages throughout its brief running time. Smiley and Hammer send sparks flying with every antagonistic exchange, Larson is amusingly weary as the woman adrift in a sea of testosterone, and Copley is predictably hilarious - for the first half at least, until his schtick begins to wear a little thin.
When the deal inevitably goes south and the bullets start to zip and zing, Wheatley sets up an hour of real-time carnage punctuated by crackling dialogue and the occasional trademark moment of hilariously sickening ultraviolence: in just ninety minutes Free Fire leaps from Reservoir Dogs to a mercifully-distilled The Hateful Eight, but without the freshness of the former or the canny subtext of the latter. Wheatley deliberately portrays the shootout as scrappy - as, presumably, it would be - but in doing so loses all sense of geography inside his single location, making the experience a frustrating one to follow. And while there's a ticklish sense of fantasy that allows so many people to get shot so many times without being killed (maybe they're Death Proof?), you do begin to wonder if the apparently inexhaustible supply of ammunition will ever run out.

Undeniably stylish (the costumes are to die for) and entertainingly performed, Free Fire is a noisy blast of fun whose echo fades out even before the credits roll. The smell of cordite and the feel of polyester are stronger sensations than anything provided by the story, and in the context of Ben Wheatley's undeniably remarkable career, that seems a shame. He's absolutely still a director to watch, but at this year's London Film Festival two other, less glorified films over which he's had a clear influence - Prevenge and The Ghoul - have burned far brighter than Free Fire.

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