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D: Ben Wheatley / 90m

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin

It’s 1978 (not that it really matters), and at an abandoned warehouse in Boston, two groups come together to conclude an arms deal. Chris (Murphy) and Frank (Smiley), are members of the IRA, and they’re accompanied by two local career criminals, Bernie (Cilenti) and Stevo (Riley). They’re attempting to buy M-16’s from arms dealer Vernon (Copley) and his associate, Martin (Ceesay); they in turn have back-up in the form of Harry (Reynor) and Gordon (Taylor). Also present are facilitators Justine (Larson), who has brought the two groups together, and Ord (Hammer) who is there to ensure the deal goes through without any problems.

But as night follows day and action comedies demand conflict followed by murderous gunplay, the deal almost falls through when Vernon reveals a case containing AR-70’s and not the M-16’s Chris ordered. Ord helps pacify things and the deal goes ahead, with Chris accepting the guns and Vernon happy with his payment. But the inevitable fly in the ointment occurs when Stevo recognises Harry as the person who beat him up earlier over Stevo’s treatment of Harry’s seventeen year old cousin. Harry sees him and is incensed, and the deal is in jeopardy again. Chris tells Stevo to apologise, but though he does, he can’t resist bragging about what he did to Harry’s cousin. Harry responds by shooting Stevo in the shoulder, and the next moment everybody is shooting at each other, and fanning out across the warehouse.

What follows sees everybody shot and wounded in some way, but in particular it’s Martin who becomes everyone’s focus as he suffers a head wound that leaves him unconscious and lying next to the briefcase with the money inside it. Efforts are made to retrieve it on both sides, but it proves more difficult than anyone could have expected, and further injuries/wounds occur, leaving pretty much everyone struggling to stay alive – and when two further men turn up and shoot at them all, the whole situation goes from bad to worse to ridiculous.

The Closing Night Gala at last year’s London Film Festival, Free Fire is a movie that further cements writer/director Ben Wheatley’s reputation, but does so in a way that will have some viewers wondering what all the fuss is about. This doesn’t mean that Wheatley isn’t a talent to watch, or that his movies aren’t worth watching either, but Free Fire arrives in cinemas with a wealth of expectation behind it following its successfully received screenings at various festivals. Whether or not that level of expectation is warranted will depend on your acceptance of Wheatley being a movie maker with a distinctive visual style, and something to say. Because even though Free Fire is certainly distinctive, and directed with no small amount of flair by Wheatley, it’s not his most accomplished movie to date, and after the misfire that was High-Rise (2015), prompts the question, When will he make another movie that really confirms the talent we all know he has?

This isn’t to say that Free Fire is necessarily a bad movie, but it does appear to have been made with the intention of being entertaining, and it’s here that the movie gives cause for concern. For a director of Wheatley’s talent and rising stature, Free Fire feels too forced too often to be effective, or win over its audience. Some viewers, if they take the movie at face value, will find it enjoyable, but in a kind of loud, dumb fun kind of way. Wheatley, and his co-writer (and wife) Amy Jump, have gone for a crowd-pleasing black comedy action thriller that focuses heavily on the “fun” to be had from seeing a group of villainous individuals shoot each other, and which then sits back and watches them suffer even further.

This is where the notion that the movie is “fun” loses traction the longer the movie goes on. By letting all of its motley assortment of characters drag themselves around to less and less dramatic effect – Stevo’s demise is a particular example, a moment that makes no sense given his capacity thus far for survival – the problem of what to do with them all becomes increasingly more difficult for Wheatley to solve. In the end, he signposts the movie’s final scene, attempts to wrap it all up neatly, and confirms that any originality has been spent long before. For all its likeability, the movie hopes to beguile its audience into thinking that it’s fresh, sharp and funny, and though it does raise a smile quite often, this is more to do with the performances than Wheatley and Jump’s script.

Once the action and the shooting begins, some viewers will be left wondering who’s shooting and wounding who, and why co-writers Wheatley and Jump couldn’t have hired someone other than themselves to edit the movie. In the initial melee, it’s hard to work out just exactly what’s going on, and while it may serve to highlight the chaotic nature of the action, the spacing and the staging of the various protagonists isn’t made clear enough for viewers to accurately gauge where everyone is and how anyone can shoot anyone else. As a result, characters are hit – some more than once – and often it seems as if it’s the random choice of the screenplay. The effect this has is to distance the viewer from what’s happening – and to whom – and to reduce the characters to little more than that of ducks in a shooting gallery.

Thankfully, the cast know what they’re doing, from Copley’s quick to take offence arms dealer, to Hammer’s smooth-talking facilitator, to Riley’s drug-addled liability. As the lone female in the cast, Larson quickly becomes “one of the lads” as Justine has no option but to fight for her own survival just like everyone else. Strangely though, it’s Murphy’s IRA man who is the movie’s nominal hero, but the movie doesn’t do anything with this, and like its period setting, lacks any relevance to the action. But then relevance doesn’t appear to be in Wheatley’s remit. Instead, he wants to bludgeon us with a movie whose ambition is to be a wildly anarchic, blackly amusing thrill ride that will have audiences wincing and laughing in equal measure. He succeeds with the wincing, and occasionally with the laughing, but overall, this is dispiriting stuff from a director who can do so much more. Perhaps this is a movie Wheatley had to do in order to “get it out of his system”, and if so, then hopefully his next project will showcase his real talents as a movie maker.

Rating: 6/10 – on a basic level, Free Fire is a movie that will attract a lot of fans, and for some, reinforce their opinion of Wheatley’s skill as a director; however, even as a slice of depth-free entertainment, it fails to hit the mark fully, and stumbles too often in its execution to offer more than an occasionally diverting experience, leavened only by the occasional humorous twist, and an equally occasional sense of its own absurdity.