The Boston lead party

Free Fire

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley

Rated MA 15+, 91 minutes

4 stars

The bastard children of Tarantino are many, most of them mere imitators. Ben Wheatley is a cut above the rest but he is English, so we have to add class war to his quiver. His last film, High-Rise – based on the book by JG Ballard – was about the toffs and the lower orders killing each other in a malfunctioning English tower block. This one is about 12 people trying to shoot each other in an abandoned Boston warehouse. That’s it.

A simpler idea would be hard to imagine. It’s what used to be known as ‘high-concept’ – which actually means low concept, in that it can be explained to a bored studio executive in one sentence. In this case: two IRA men attempt to buy guns from dodgy arms dealers in Boston, but the deal goes wrong.

For Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, who co-writes all their films together, the idea is more complicated. He wants to see if he can turn a shootout into the main course, rather than a dramatic side dish that finishes off the plot, as in say, The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen. Put that another way: he wants to apply the aesthetics of a first-person shooter game like Counter-Strike, also set in a warehouse, to a post-Tarantino comedy form – but with good characterisation. Or perhaps he wanted to shoot a movie in six weeks in one location with a great cast without leaving Brighton in England, where he and Jump live.

However you slice it, the movie is a blast – hilarious, bloody, full bore, genre-bending fun. It is of course violent, but not in an especially vicious way (at least not until near the end). One of the governing ideas is that Wheatley and Jump want us to care about these characters, so we hope they will make it out of the charnel house. They might be low-lifes, criminals and terrorists, but they’re still human – a typically bold touch by Wheatley, who’s fast becoming one of Britain’s most interesting film-makers (Sightseers, A Field in England).

The project was written for Irish actor Cillian Murphy who plays Chris, the IRA procurer. His offsider is Frank (Michael Smiley, from Wheatley’s earlier film Kill List), a less polished Irishman who’s devoted to looking after Chris. Frank’s American brother-in-law Stevo, a junkie (Sam Riley), arranges a pal (Mark Monero) to drive the van to a meeting with Justine (Brie Larson), the go-between. She knows Ord (Armie Hammer), an urbane and smooth-talking arranger of dodgy deals, who knows the men who have the guns – Martin, a failed Black Panther (Babou Ceesay) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a South African who fancies himself as both hard man and ladies man. The rest of the excellent cast includes Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin and Enzo Cilenti.

The secret of the film’s success is its endlessly inventive structure, built around precise blocking of every move and angle. In a fight with so many shooters, there are many possibilities for treachery and comedy, reversal of fortune, new alliances and secret agendas. Wheatley and Jump explore them all, with a view to seeing what people will do in order to survive.

It’s far from a new idea. What’s fresh is the energy that Wheatley brings to the direction through planning. He edited as he shot, so that he would be sure he had everything he needed. Most directors use an independent editor to do that during the shoot, to bring fresh eyes. Doing both tasks on a six-week shoot is asking for trouble, and yet the film moves and turns like a clockwork mechanism – which is essentially what it is.

Part of the fun is the highwire act as the film-makers try to outwit or outrun expectations; the other part is the deadly seriousness of the acting, even when it’s broadly funny to the characters themselves. Armie Hammer, in particular, sees the absurd glory of it all, as he’s bleeding from multiple wounds. Sharlto Copley, who actually is South African, brings a lovely satirical edge to the maniacal Vernon, a former Special Forces guy with more ego than sense. At 91 minutes, the film is not a minute too long. Oh joy that some directors are rediscovering the beauty of brevity.