The 2016 BFI London Film Festival closed with Free Fire, a comic action thriller about an arms deal gone bad from acclaimed English director Ben Wheatley.
Wheatley, considered by many to be among the best and boldest of British filmmaking talent, came to the project off the back of High Rise, his brilliant, divisive J.G. Ballard adaptation. Free Fire, a quippy B-movie with flashes of Tarantino, is decidedly less ambitious than his recent output (which includes the notoriously original A Field in England and Sightseers). The biggest risk taken is, ironically, the film’s smallness. In trying to squeeze a feature-length narrative from what is in essence a single, protracted gunfight. While there is much to admire in Free Fire’s adequacy – it is, on the whole, entertaining and funny throughout – it fails to deliver on the greatness suggested by the opening twenty minutes, and the monotonous peppering of bullets somewhat inevitably yields diminishing returns.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. The standout is Sharlto Copley as Vernon, a self–satisfied South African weapons dealer, and the butt of most of the funnier quips. Oscar winner Brie Larson plays Justine, the neutral middleman and only woman in the film. Set in the 70s, there are some funny, if obvious, jokes pertaining to her gender; Vernon in particular struggles to work out how to regard ‘the bird’, opting for clumsy chivalry and comic bafflement. Larson is good but offers no surprises. The same can be said of Cillian Murphy, who brings natural charisma to his character, an I.R.A. activist, but the role is too thinly defined to give him anything to work with.
“Even in its failings, Free Fire is daring, clever and conspicuously free of Hollywood homogeneity”
It says a lot about Wheatley’s past that this film, an essentially entertaining and witty piece of work, can be so disappointing. Sadly, you can’t help but feel that Free Fire is ultimately more style than worthwhile substance.
The London Film Festival has wholly lived up to expectation this year, with a panoply of great and varied films from all corners of the world. Free Fire may be far from the best on display, but yielding the fortnight’s final lines to a British filmmaker of such calibre as Ben Wheatley makes perfect sense. Even in its failings, Free Fire is daring, clever and conspicuously free of Hollywood homogeneity.
Image: Ben Wheatley