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Free Fire: Having a laugh in a bloody shootout


- A deal to buy a stash of guns descends into a hellish bloodbath in Ben Wheatley’s gripping action-comedy

Free Fire: Having a laugh in a bloody shootout
Brie Larson in Free Fire

Chosen as the closing film of the 60th BFI London Film Festival, shortly after premiering at Toronto International Film Festival, Free Fire [+see also:
film profile
confirms Ben Wheatley’s status as one of today’s freshest genre innovators; this time hopping from horror to thriller, mixed with his particular blend of British humour.

Brie Larson plays Justine, the intermediary in an weapons deal between an American gang, led by a charlatan salesman and his suave counterpart (a show-stealing Sharlto Cooper and Armie Hammer, respectively), and a group of Irish men (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley). While counting the money, one of the Irish crew members is recognised as the cause of a nasty altercation the night before and, as the tension escalates, the perpetrator is shot. Gunfire ensues, made worse by the presence of two snipers overlooking the warehouse. All of a sudden, everyone is trapped in the derelict factory, hiding from the bloody, free-for-all gunfight, while trying to grab the case containing the money, lying open on the floor. As the casualties pile up, they will call a momentary truce to let Justine leave the building and call for help, but on her way out a phone rings, making it apparent that whoever reaches it first will be the one who wins. 

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Set in Massachusetts, circa 1970s, yet shot almost entirely over six weeks in a Brighton storehouse, Ben Wheatley recovers the kinetic, trigger-happy spirit of the best Sam Peckinpah classics and underpins it with laugh-out-loud gags about the aesthetics of the period, its stereotypical retro characters – the slimy lead, the doll, the sleazeball, the tough guy; etc. – and even the diversity of accents within his international cast. Comparisons with Tarantino are inevitable, but despite its universal scope and American location, it remains deeply infused with the legacy of English comedy.

Boasting superb editing, an impressive acting ensemble and a clever use of the kind of props you would find in an abandoned factory to drive the story, Free Fire also benefits from the advice and expertise of outstanding collaborators. The presence of Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff as executive producers may have been a great help in getting the vibe of the project right, while a jaunty score composed by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury perfectly complements the energy of the film’s violent set-up.

Wheatley’s most ambitious project to date has all the elements of a big hit and manages to end on a culturally relevant and very contemporary note. Moreover, as happens often happens when revisiting familiar territory, what matters here is the journey, not the destination. In that respect the British filmmaker has delivered one hell of a fun ride.

Free Fire was produced by Film4, the BFI and Rook Films, with Protagonist Pictures handling its international sales.

Our 60th BFI London Film Festival coverage is run in collaboration with the UK National Film and Television School's MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation.

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