In Robert Altman’s movie-biz satire The Player, ruthless studio executive Tim Robbins demands writers and directors pitch him ideas in 25 words or less (he means fewer, but this is Hollywood, not Harvard). The industry parlance is “high concept”; pithy, catch-all shorthand for a film that does what it says on the tin – or, more accurately, its cans.
By and large, high concept is most effective when it namechecks an earlier, successful film. Think the nail-biting thrills of Speed (“Die Hard on a bus”) or Tom Cruise behind the wheel of a souped-up Chevy in Days of Thunder (“Top Gun with racing cars”). If director Ben Wheatley and his co-writer, wife Amy Jump, adhere to the same rule book, they might well have sold Free Fire as “the last 90 seconds of Reservoir Dogs stretched out to fill 90 minutes”.
Rest assured this will be a spoiler-free review, mainly because there’s very little plot to spoil in a lively if lightweight yarn of cross and double-cross ripped straight from the large-print playbooks of Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese (the latter credited here as executive producer). Pulp Fiction and GoodFellas in particular spawned a glut of below-par copyists, and it’s arguably those less-inspired wannabes Wheatley is taunting with his display of “I could do this in my sleep” bravado.
Various stripes of ne’er-do-wells gather at a dockside warehouse for an illegal arms deal, but mutual suspicion and deep-rooted grudges result in itchy trigger fingers all round. Fortuitously, there’s no shortage of vehicles, barrels and concrete pillars behind which Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley and others can take cover when the bullets start to fly. And fly they do – relentlessly – for the entire length of the film.
The action takes place in Boston in 1978, referenced only once with a throwaway line about Larson’s Charlie’s Angels-style hair, although it’s obliquely inferred that the guns are destined for the IRA. Certainly, it helps justify the presence of Belfast-born, thick-accented Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, but ultimately the time and/or place has little bearing on what goes down.
Wheatley’s CV is intriguing and audacious. He made his big-screen bow in 2010 with the underplayed Royle-Family-meets-The-Sopranos oddity Down Terrace, but truly grabbed film-goers’ attention with the dark and unsettling hitman horror Kill List. Next up was Sightseers and its misfit caravanning lovers on a murder spree (Badlands with a stopover at Keswick Pencil Museum), followed by the psychotropic English Civil War strangeness of A Field In England.
He then returned to television with the two-part, so feature-length, Doctor Who that introduced Peter Capaldi to the Tardis (a Dickensian dinosaurs-and-robots adventure with an inter-species lesbian subplot), before adapting JG Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise to include a succession of visual nods to Stanley Kubrick. Subsequently, Free Fire comes across as a minor work, a casual, near-autopilot genre exercise. Were one to extend the Tarantino parallels, this would be Wheatley’s Death Proof.
It’s all hugely enjoyable, never taking itself too seriously, yet it paradoxically runs the risk of disappointing the director’s most expectant die-hard fans; Brit cinema’s enfant terrible turned terribly infantile. Wheatley settles on a note and sticks to it until the song threatens to become a drone (there is a finite number of ways a film-maker can show someone getting shot in the leg), and hopefully his next project will find him challenging audiences – and himself – with more gusto.
Free Fire is released on cinemas on Friday 31 March