Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is set in the 1970s, but the era it conjures is the 1990s. Like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the film is set largely within the confines of an abandoned warehouse, with a group of suspicious crooks turning on each other in the aftermath of their best laid plans going awry. The film could easily have been part of the torrent of imitators that Reservoir Dogs spawned; in fact it did bring to mind one of them, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “I don't fucking believe this. Could everyone stop getting shot?” Frank Harper says in the middle of that film, which sounds exactly like the kind of glib throwaway line that one of Free Fire's characters might utter. “I've forgotten whose side I'm on!” one of them wails as he limps across the screen, bullets zipping around him.
The bullets start flying after about twenty minutes and they keep going until the film's end, with only a few lulls for characters to catch their breath, check their wounds and trade quips. If this isn't your kind of thing then Free Fire might prove to be an arduous experience, so make the most of that opening sequence. Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump do a very efficient job of making the introductions and setting up the various loyalties and rivalries that will become muddied over the course of the movie. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy are IRA operatives in the US to buy some machine guns, in a deal facilitated by two Americans, played by Armie Hammer and Brie Larson. The seller, a sleazy and cowardly figure in a garish Savile Row suit, is played by Sharlto Copley, who sadly doesn't catch a bullet in the head the first time he appears on screen and is therefore free to give one of those uniquely Copley-esque turns that will antagonise as many viewers as he entertains.
These actors are the central figures in the ensemble, although it's a dispute between two minor henchmen – Sam Riley and Jack Reynor – that provides the spark in this tinderbox situation. The couple of minutes surrounding this skirmish, as tensions rise and the protagonists start reaching for their firearms, are the best in the film, but when the starting pistol has fired and everyone has scrambled for cover, Free Fire settles into a mode of furious gunplay, although nobody here is a crack shot. Aside from Babou Ceesay, who immediately takes one in the head, the bullets in Free Fire tend to clip characters' shoulders (“It's okay, it's mostly the suit”) or strike them in the leg, doing enough to slow them down but still keeping them in play. There is talk of a “golden hour-and-a-half”, apparently the time it takes for somebody to die from a bullet wound (Free Fire, incidentally runs for a shade over 90 minutes), and as the film reaches its final stages the characters still alive are reduced to crawling, lethargic, dead men (and woman) walking, with barely enough strength left to lift their guns.
It should be fun to watch all of this mayhem unfold in real time, and to watch Wheatley attempt to stretch a scenario that might be a third-act climax in most movies to feature length, but it soon descends into a noisy mess that's hard to stay invested in. On a recent visit to the Curzon Soho I noticed a hand-drawn map of the warehouse on the wall as part of Free Fire's promotional materials, and I found myself longing for such a visual aid while watching the film itself and trying to make sense of its spatial incoherence. For much of Free Fire it's impossible to tell where these characters are in relation to each other and who's firing at who, and while some might suggest that this is intentional, to place us in the middle of the carnage and make us share the characters' confusion, that feels like a very weak defence. When Wheatley attempts to stage two parallel sequences in which characters attempt to get to a phone that's somewhere in the building – Copley chasing Smiley and Noah Taylor crawling after Larson – the staging and cutting makes it unreasonably hard to ascertain who exactly is where. If only the visuals could keep pace with the sound, as the way the bullets, dialogue and music have been mixed by Rob Entwistle to give us a sense of location and distance is one of Free Fire's unqualified successes.
But maybe this film was never going to work for me. I've watched all of Ben Wheatley's six feature films and found myself alternately intrigued, perplexed and irritated by them, and ultimately feeling distinctly unsatisfied as the credits have rolled. Sometimes a filmmaker just isn't on your wavelength and there's no bridging that gap, and Ben Wheatley is certainly beloved by enough film fans to suggest that the problem is more mine than his, but I still can't get on board with how shoddy much of his work is and how often it is little more than a solid premise botched in the delivery. One minor but telling detail in Free Fire has stayed with me: Armie Hammer taking a moment in the middle of a gun battle to admire his reflection in a wing mirror. It's an obvious joke, but between Hammer spotting the mirror and actually fixing his mussed hair, Wheatley inexplicably cuts to a random shot of Brie Larson, thereby destroying the rhythm of this simple gag. This throwaway moment seems to sum up my reaction to the films of Ben Wheatley: nice idea, shame about the execution.