“I just want everyone to go home happy from this deal,” Justine says. Her exterior says calm, but it’s not a calm situation. Just ask Frank, who is sour faced and twitchy. Justine knows their contact, Ord, and has worked hard to set it up but it’s a complicated and delicate situation. Just well Ord shows up on time, exuding the confidence that all will go well which has earned him the monicker “the man.”
On the other side of the deal, the kid nursing the panda eye Stevo is asking for painkiller and instead being offered smack, while Chris may present as cool as Justine but it’s in a different way; he’s not in any way assured that things will go well, he just doesn’t have a problem with the liklihood that it may all end up bloody and he has prepared accordingly.
And Vernon, the seller? Described as “a misdiagnosed child genius” who never got over the disappointment of finding he’s not, he’s cocky, condescending and short tempered. Fortunately his wingman, former Black Panther Martin, has the chill to match his suave swagger, but wheelman Harry is on a short fuse over something that happened the previous night, and Stevo might just be the guy to pull that trigger.
A disused warehouse down by the Boston docks, all the boys want to play the alpha male and being the sole skirt in the room they’re all trying to show off for Justine who is more concerned with keeping a smooth hand on the rudder than having to keep their unwanted hands off her. All they need is for Vernon to present the merchandise and for the cash to be counted. What can possibly go wrong?
It’s not a great surprise to learn that, in Free Fire, fifth feature film from director Ben Wheatley, the answer to that is practically everything. What is more surprising, given a single location, the limited opportunity for character development in a ninety minute film which takes place in real time and the unpromising premise of “gun deal goes badly wrong” how spectacularly and hilariously everything catastrophically unravels.
In a warehouse with scant cover and a van load of Beretta AR70 assault rifles, pointedly not the M16s requested, tempers run high and hot lead flies as fast as the insults and every bullet raises the stakes, quickly moving from a business dispute to personal. “There’s more blood on the floor here than a sausage factory,” comes the shout, but at least resourceful Justine has a travel sewing kit in her handbag to stitch herself up.
With a fiery momentum built on the kindling of ambition and ego, the last thing the “every man for himself” party needs is armed gatecrashers but as the plan shatters and the two sides lose dignity and blood that’s just what shows up, and it becomes unavoidable that someone isn’t playing by the rules of the game.
Co-written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, the script was revised as shooting took place to allow the performances to feed into the dialogue of the characters, and despite the scant screen time afforded to each of the ensemble all the performers are able to portray them with sufficient depth that the audience can come to know them and their quirks, some for longer than others.
A loser’s game of blood loss, bad decisions and John Denver ballads, Free Fire cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as sophisticated but without a wasted moment it achieves what it sets out to do gloriously, Wheatley himself having compared it to Evil Dead 2 and Tom and Jerry, and certainly it is a more broadly commercial film than the sinister smoulder of Kill List or the rotting utopian social experiment of High-Rise which will be sure to win him new fans ready to be perplexed by his back catalogue.
Free Fire is on general release from Friday 31st March