Ben Wheatley is fast becoming a Glasgow Film Festival favourite as, after the Scottish premiere screening of the bold and subversive High Rise at the event last year, he returns in 2017 with his latest film; Free Fire. While there was an audible groan of disappointment when he said that, as he didn’t have a film in the can yet, he would not make it three visits to the festival in a row in 2018, the audience none the less enjoyed his latest offering; a mad, bloody and uproariously funny 70 minute long shootout (preceded by around 20 minutes of set up and character introductions). Free Fire is set in 1970s Boston in a derelict waterfront warehouse where two IRA members Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), after making contact with Hammer’s nauseatingly suave Ord, are led into a large open section of the building to meet arms dealers Vernon and Martin (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay). Copley, seemingly doing an outlandish impression of himself, is the major source of comedy early on in the film, complaining about Chris getting gunpowder on his Savile Row suit, amongst other things. Mediator Justine (Brie Larsen) and helping hands Bernie, Stevo, Gordon and Harry (Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor) provide added muscle, for want of a better word, to both sides. Wheatley admitted after the film that he had assembled the cast, or at least some of it, before he and his writing partner Amy Jump had written the script, and with the names on show it is not difficult to see why.
Unsurprisingly, the deal quickly goes south, due to a confusion as to what rifle was ordered in the first place and a revival of a fight that had taken place the night before the deal between Stevo and Harry. When it does all hell breaks loose as individuals hunker down behind whatever barricade they can find and start blind firing in the vague direction of one another; all the while a briefcase full of money lies in no man’s land between them. Friends end up accidentally shooting friends, alliances are formed and broken and Vernon continues to try and woo Justine whilst at the same time trying to kill her because he believes she is a traitor. The most impressive aspect of Wheatley’s film is that despite this carnage and confusion, the sense of space and time is perfectly maintained which allows the audience to keep a hold on who exactly is doing what and when. Given the trend towards frenetic, choppy action in blockbusters recently, Free Fire is refreshing in its simplicity and clarity.
Wheatley said that he set the film in 1978 because he needed an excuse for two Irishmen to be in America and decided that arms dealing in the time of the IRA seemed like good cause, and because if it was set any later then the characters would all have mobile phones, which would somewhat spoil the drama of the last 40 minutes. This all makes sense, but setting it in this particular era also allows Wheatley to play with the production design of the film, from the outrageous suits to the luxurious facial hair, to great comedic effect. Taking inspiration from films such as Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Outfit, Wheatley has created an homage to the golden age of Hollywood gun fights that rivals any of the works of Quentin Tarantino.