Ben Wheatley knows how to do genre.
While some directors seem to settle in to a very certain genre and live happily with much acclaim, Ben Wheatley seems more comfortable hopping from comedy to thriller to psychedelia with no hint of hesitation. When a director’s resume includes, ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’, ‘Sightseers’, ‘High Rise’, and now Free Fire one thing is clear:
Ben Wheatley knows how to do genre; all of them.
In a very tangible sense, Free Fire is a high-concept conglomerate of all Wheatley’s past explorations of genre. The tension of ‘Kill List’, the black humor of ‘Sightseers’, the altered reality of ‘A Field in England’, and the close quarters of ‘High Rise’ are all on display in Free Fire.
In another sense, however, Free Fire is completely disassociated and separate from his previous films. For one thing, it is polished. By necessity, the film is tightly paced and choreographed in a way the audience hasn’t previously seen from Wheatley. Free Fire takes no time for exploration, it is sprinting towards its conclusion the moment the opening titles appear. This film is unified in its approach and that approach is inarguably high-concept. The entire film is reducible to this pitch: “Criminals stuck in a warehouse shoot at each other.” That is the narrative. Once the gunfire begins, it doesn’t end until the credits roll. In truth, the entire film (minus the speedy introduction) is made up of what usually fills a third act. So, that conceit begs the question; can a film that is almost entirely climax work?
In Free Fire, the answer is emphatically yes. Wheatley and company keep the pacing so frenetic, so entertaining, that the film speeds by with nary a lull. It may be high-concept, but Free Fire executes the hell out of that concept. A large part of this execution lies on the performances and the action. Every actor in the film is nearly perfect here, the delivery is succinct, the pacing is infallible, and the humor is biting. If a film wants an audience to follow along with a shootout for over an hour, it has to ensure that the characters involved are both compelling and entertaining. The cast of Free Fire are both of these things on a level that is both effective and impressive.
With all of that said, Free Fire is not without some thematic heft. At its core, Free Fire deals with the folly of crime and the ineptitude of the criminal. In the spirit of much of the Coen Brothers’ catalog, as well as Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’, Free Fire uses the parody of ineptitude to make a statement on violence and crime. Through all of its high-concept shenanigans the absurdity of violence, and humanity in general, shines through.
So while Free Fire is somehow both a conglomeration of Wheatley’s work and a noticeable departure in style, it is wholly entertaining nonetheless. Wheatley’s skill as a director and storyteller, as well as the performances of the cast and the choreography of the action, amplifies this high-concept film into a high-energy narrative journey filled with Looney Tune levels of violence and Coen Brothers levels of dark humor.