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Free Fire

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“Free Fire” is the latest film from celebrated director Ben Wheatley, the man behind last year’s “High-Rise” and the critically acclaimed psychological horror “Kill List”. After thoroughly disliking both of those films I was sceptical about this one, particularly because what I found most frustrating about them was that they were over-stylised and self-indulgent. However, “Free Fire” is a much less jarring cinematic experience because it’s localised to one setting and focuses on comedy rather than drama, allowing Wheatley to craft a clear narrative which is complemented by a sharp script.

Initial reviews for this film suggest that it could be divisive, which isn’t too surprising given that critics failed to reach a consensus as to whether “High-Rise” was a well-realised artistic endeavour or an overly ambitious mess. What’s immediately apparent about this film is that there was a conscious effort made by Wheatley and his team to make it more accessible to a wider audience than his previous work. This is something which will obviously effect perceptions depending what your opinions on his movies are, so given that my opinions on said movies are largely negative I was relieved by the shift in focus. The way that characters behave and interact with one another in this film is still off-kilter compared to what mainstream audiences are used to, but it works on this occasion because it’s employed for the sake of comedy and turns a serious situation into something absurdly funny.

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If there’s one criticism of “Free Fire” that I think holds real weight it’s that the camerawork is surprisingly uninspired. There are points at which characters are moving around in the warehouse (the film’s primary location) amidst a sea of oncoming bullets, trying to reach a briefcase or hunt down an enemy, and you don’t have any sort of clear perception as to where they’ve ended up. They move around quite a bit, crawling from cover to cover like bad A.I. in a video game, but you can’t keep up because the camera seems to spin around almost aimlessly. For the most part this lack of clarity didn’t detract significantly from the experience for me because I felt that it fit with the chaotic tone that the film was going for, but I did find it annoying and I have to question why more wasn’t done to make things visually compelling.

Nevertheless, from a personal perspective I found “Free Fire” very entertaining – the humour hit its mark much more accurately than the characters hit their targets, and the interactions between characters are a joy for the most part. I found the absurdist nature of the film endearing yet familiar, generating comparisons to Tarantino as the characters faced life-threatening situations yet seemed detached from their own peril, and I felt that the performances went a long way to making the characters believable.

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Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) was particularly funny as cowardly arms dealer Vernon, making the character as loveable as he was despicable, and his performance was nicely offset by the straight-talking Chris (Cillian Murphy) who was the de facto protagonist in a film filled with horrible people. Every actor in the film did a great job, from Oscar winner Brie Larson to Michael Smiley who frequently collaborates with Wheatley, and I can’t think of one person who let the movie down.

Overall I felt that “Free Fire” was genuinely funny, with an array of entertaining performances and a strong premise which forced Ben Wheatley to tone down some of his more frustrating directorial tendencies. It’s a much more straightforward and thus less messy film than his previous work, but it still feels like a thoughtful and inventive take on a simple concept. It’s my favourite Wheatley film so far and I’d recommend it to almost anyone, which is testament to how he has adapted his style to something more widely accessible following the mixed reception he received for the almost unwatchable “High-Rise”.

8/10

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