Sunday 23 April 2017

Free Fire by Wheatley and Jump

Sometimes I regard this blog as a forum for public-health style warnings, so it's somewhat in that spirit that I'm writing about Free Fire, the latest feature film directed by British wunderkind Ben Wheatley and written by his long time partner (writing and otherwise) Amy Jump.

It's regrettable that I'm going out of my way to advise you to dodge this movie. At one time — after the release of Kill List — Wheatley appeared to be a film maker of impressive talent and originality. But Free Fire is an abjectly feeble and very dull film. It's sub-Quentin Tarantino and sub-sub-sub Martin Scorsese (unbelievably, Scorsese is a producer on it).

Free Fire tells the simple (far too simple) tale of an arms deal gone wrong. Some IRA men (played by Cillian Murphy, late of Peaky Blinders, and Michael Smiley) are in the States, in Boston, in 1979  to buy automatic rifles from American crooks. 

The transaction is taking place in the abandoned factory beloved of film makers and, when it goes sour, the movie spends the rest of its duration in there with the characters shooting at each other.

The cast is strong, featuring such wonderful actors as the South African Sharlto Copley, who has portrayed memorable heavies in Old Boy and Elysium; Armie Hammer — The Social Network and Man from UNCLE; Brie Larson, who was magnificent in Room; and Sam Riley from SS GB

Hammer and Larson are among the few Americans in a cast which is either explicitly foreign or British actors passing. And one of the impressive aspects of this movie is that the whole thing is passing as American — it was actually shot in Britain, but I never would have guessed.

But that's about all I can say in favour of Free Fire. It's desperately boring and, at 90 minutes, feels more like three hours. Once we realise we're stuck in this abandoned factory for the rest of the film, our hearts just sink. 

Yes, these characters are shooting guns at each other, but since we care nothing about any of them, and nothing is at stake, none of it really matters. And it's a long, long slog to the end titles.

In a perceptive review in the April issue of Sight and Sound, Tony Rayns points out that one reason for the utter lack of suspense in Free Fire is that it's devoid of establishing shots. We don't know where the protagonists are in relation to each other and so we don't understand the overall situation. But unlike Tony Rayns, I don't think this is daring artistry. I think it's a fatal mistake.

Rayns also says "Wheatley obviously risks boring his audience stiff" and asks "So what keeps us watching?" To which I can only reply that Wheatley doesn't just risk it, he succeeds: and I wish I hadn't kept watching, but rather had walked out instead of losing an hour and a half of my life which I'll never get back.

However, to be scrupulously fair, there were people in the cinema who were chuckling at the dialogue, so maybe this film will appeal to some. Personally I'd advise you to steer well clear and spend 90 minutes doing something else.

And, although I have yet to see Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, I have seen his movies Sightseers and High Rise and, as far as I'm concerned, Free Fire represents his third strike. Regrettably I think this young British director is out.

(Image credits: Unbelievably, there's 28 posters for this slight film at Imp Awards.)


  1. I have a very curious relationship with Wheatley; I saw Down Terrace and hated it. Saw Kill List and appreciated the first half, hated the second and felt the whole thing to be one long trolling. Then I saw A Field In England and liked it, then Sightseers which I utterly adored. So I went back to DT and KL and found them slightly better on a second watch, though still not great. Then he did High Rise which I loved, being a big fan of the book. Free Fire whetted my appetite, but it played for exactly 5 days in my local crappy cinema, so never got to see it. That said, I do have reservations; the idea of a film consisting of people shooting at one another until they get killed off really doesn't appeal to me.

    Perversely, I have a mate who has a similar funny r'ship with Wheatley, except he hates everything except A Field In England and this!

    1. I am really looking forward to catching A Field in England. It's had good reports from friends, and the subject matter appeals. I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to see Free Fire for yourself. I always feel people should make up their own minds and, as I said, a portion of the audience was evidently enjoying it. Wheatley is a divisive figure, but his output is certainly not monotonously similar! Many thanks for reading, and commenting.