With a cast derived entirely of actors and artists who should have hit it bigger than they had at this point, Free Fire beckons the alluring charms of the ensemble action to the front and centre. Director Ben Wheatley has often crafted stories to the left of the norm, and his unique experience and desire to create is holding him back. Thus, the issue with Free Fire is not what it wishes to do, but what it tries to say, if anything. Starkly different to his previous, heavily classism-based High Rise, his adaptation of J. G. Ballard is worlds away from the rock-heavy action mystery.
His expertise as a director is shown well enough in the opening segments. They are desirable and effective, yet simple and reformed. He presents the gloomy streets and fishy superstitions of every character. Separate groups coming together to agree to a gun sale, all to the backdrop of 1970s Boston. With one group comes the star power of Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson and Michael Smiley, while the second group comprise the rest of these unfamiliar faces. Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Noah Taylor also appear in their usual positions of supporting character. To be fair, everyone here is a supporting character. There is no one clear leader or victor aside from Wheatley, who encourages these capable cast members to support his story.
There has to be one with clear passion and brilliance, though, and Smiley is the man to shine through here. His thick Irish accent cuts through the gloomy streets of Boston exceptionally well, and although he plays a caricature of the traditional Irish gangster, he does it well enough to make it his own. He spars verbally with Hammer and Larson particularly well, striking up the first act formalities with brief respites of comedy all along the way. It is done with grace, and the flourishes to the feature are well-crafted by Wheatley. Somewhat struggling at times under the weight of Copley’s appearance, but nothing that cannot be sorted by the strengths of Murphy and Hammer. Some of the dialogue between this ensemble is rather weak, and there are only so many bouts that can be improved by curse words and comedy, but the pockets of brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments are the more rewarding when they are spotted.
Free Fire is heavily seeped in its encouraging 70s soundtrack. Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Denver litter the soundtrack. It is more to acknowledge the directing style of Wheatley than anything else. He knows he must show these characters plodding through hallways and preparing for a sudden onslaught. What better way to do it than with some of the finest tracks of the era? Their meaning is muddled though, their inclusion nothing more than a fitting piece of the age. This trickles down into the characters a tad too often. Babou Ceesay plays Martin, which Larson describes as “a Panther that didn’t work out”. It does not affect the narrative, outside of being a reference to the period. It should serve more than a reference to the cultural fractures found between characters, and even then, it does not do all that much.
When Wheatley directs a subject he has a keen interest in, it is clear that he has fun engaging with his cast and crew. Free Fire is a testament to that, considering how amicable and enjoyable the piece is. He is buoyed by layered characters and a story that is driven by misunderstandings and small problems from prior encounters that bubble up to the surface when tension, weaponry and money is involved. Compared to his attempts at breaking into the mainstream, Rebecca, Wheatley can only hope for a return to the narratives and stylings that appeal to him. Small, surprising ensembles that don’t outstay their welcome. For if they do, the problems of tokenism and typical stereotypes become all too clear and unbearable, as they nearly do at times throughout Free Fire, a competent, contained crime piece.