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Watch Jim Flanagan and I discuss FREE FIRE and Ben Wheatley’s other films here

*** (out of five)

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is an odd experiment that doesn’t quite come off. It’s absolutely entertaining and I completely recommend it, but, dare I say it, I was hoping for more – perhaps too much.

I’ve been expecting too much from Wheatley ever since I saw Kill List (2011), a wild, incredibly satisfying work of auteurist cinema. Terrifying, supremely confident and wholly original – while acknowledging fascinating forebears – Kill List instantly put Wheatley on my own, exclusive list of directors whose films I will always see as soon as I can. Sightseers (2012) kept me completely on board, while I brushed off 2013’s mystifying A Field In England as an allowable indulgence. But last year’s High Rise, while chock full of superb elements, went haywire in its storytelling, essentially replacing the second act with a montage of hysterical imagery. Indulgence indeed. Still, I love the cut of the man’s jib – I feel like he makes the kind of movies I want to see – so I went into Free Fire looking forward to something… well, I was hoping for astonishing. It isn’t that.

The experiment is simple: Set up a big arms deal in a contained location with a group of dangerous men (and one woman), get some fun characterisations going, then chuck a spanner in the works, get them shooting at each other – and don’t stop. Finish at ninety minutes.

For the experiment to really work, it needs to fulfil a few criteria. We should be entertained the entire time. The gun battle should have an interior logic allowing us to follow it. We should care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. It should be fun.

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The good news is, it’s definitely fun, and we do care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. The first, shortest act of the film is the set-up, and a batch of really good comic actors get to strut out some terrific oddballs in very deft strokes. Sharlto Copley gets the juiciest ham as Vernon, the purveyor of the fine firearms; he gets to use his own South African accent to terrific comic effect. Cillian Murphy plays one of those small, good-looking IRA guys – he’s buying the guns – who just have a killer vibe about them despite their build. Armie Hammer, looking really tall amongst this bunch, plays a super-cool middle-man – he actually lights up a joint and gets high later on, as the bullets are flying – and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley plays the Michael Smiley role (on the IRA side). Brie Larson’s the chick (unfortunately not likely to get her another Oscar) and along the way, some more greasy thugs come to the deal, with terrifically icky turns from Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. Babou Ceesay, as Vernon’s more level-headed offsider, stabilises things a little, at least for awhile. Oh, and it’s set in the late 70s, so everyone looks groovy, with facial hair, big lapels and leisure suits aplenty.

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So far, so Reservoir Dogs (and we wouldn’t have Wheatley if we didn’t have Tarantino). Unfortunately, once the bullets start flying, the film stumbles a little in achieving its goals. Despite stupendous technical care – Wheatley planned out the hour-long-or-so gun battle on models, in storyboards, and on Minecraft (!) – we still lose track of who is where and when, who’s shooting at whom, how wounded everyone is, and what’s generally going on. The situation is confusing for the characters but when it is so for us, we can drift, and I certainly did. In its long second act and into its third, it’s a very easy movie to tune out of, because – hey – you know what’s going on: a gun battle. All you’re really sticking around for is to see who survives at the end.

I still have Wheatley on my list. I’m glad he’s playing with form. Good on him and more power to him. But accepting Free Fire’s flaws remind me that Wheatley’s most obvious modern influence – Tarantino – has never put out a film that is anything other than masterful. Tarantino takes his time. Wheatley is in a fertile, prolific, hyper-productive period. Perhaps if he slowed down, his films would be more polished… but there would be less of them. Not a bad dilemma for those of us who love cinema to have.

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