Free Fire promises all the fireworks, but leaves more than a few damp squibs, says MacDara Conroy

Coming barely a year from their divisive adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise, the first significant misstep in what’s been a fertile creative partnership and a kick up the rear for British independent cinema, director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump stick to the Seventies for Free Fire, their gun-toting exploitation tribute but one with a decidedly mainstream bent.

More or less a single-set production, Free Fire’s abandoned Boston docks warehouse is the rendezvous point for an illicit arms deal. The buyers — a duo of provos, Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley), and their Yank cousin Stevo (Sam Riley) — have come with a bag of cash to trade for a cache of M16s. On the other side, shifty eyed salesman Vernon (Sharlto Copley) has designs on fudging the deal for his own best interests.

Things are off to a prickly start, but it’s nothing that can’t be worked out via their go-betweens, the suave Ord (Armie Hammer) and no-nonsense Justine (Brie Larson). That is, until some prior bad blood between junkie Stevo and Vernon’s associate Harry (Jack Reynor) sours the mood, and trigger fingers start twitching. Never a good idea with a van full of machine guns around.

Free Fire is at its best in that first half hour, as the players are introduced and the tension ratchets up. The results are inevitable, it’s what we’ve come to see, but just like a rollercoaster teetering over the edge, it’s all in the anticipation. Wheatley and Jump are aces at that kind of nail-biting tension; the slow-creeping builds of Kill List and A Field in England come immediately to mind.

Sharlto Copley in Free Fire

But when the moment finally comes, when that first shot goes off and those bullets start flying, the film has nowhere else to go but down. At least a rollercoaster throws a few loops on the way before the ride’s over, but Free Fire’s stakes don’t get any higher. Frenzy is expected, but conspicuous by its absence. In this war of attrition, these characters will be picked off one by one, that’s the nature of the beast. But entropy sets in fast when the film has so few characters to begin with.

Lots of people, yes, but few characters. Smiley gets all the best smart-arse lines (his riff on “the real Hollywood” is a classic) while Copley steals the show, putting on a nasal Transvaal whine to match his polyester suit and weaselly actions, plus a few homegrown idioms (“Wake up and smell the Ricoffy!”) for good measure. But neither brings much to the table once they’ve got their heads down amid the crossfire.

Elsewhere, Riley and his strung-out pal Gordon (Noah Taylor) are little more than clay pigeons once they’ve serviced the plot. Reynor’s part seems mostly designed to annoy with his atrocious Noo Yawk accent. Larson and Murphy, meanwhile, are just kind of there; a teased romance between the two lacks the requisite spark or zip.

With a premise so classic, how could Free Fire possibly go so wrong? In hindsight, that should have been a warning sign, for what we get is what should be can’t-miss concept that struggles to grasp for a story with any thrust, trusting on the chaos to coast it through to the finish.

That chaos worked for Kill List, A Field in England and even High-Rise, as their protagonists slip into a hell they never saw coming. But here it can’t hide the deficiencies in plot, and the uninspired staging that makes only superficial use of its admittedly well dressed, gritty location.

It’s a film that promises all the fireworks, and the first few crackles are impressive, but Free Fire leaves more than a few damp squibs.

Free Fire opens in selected cinemas nationwide on Friday March 31st

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