Free Fire, co-written and directed by British director Ben Wheatley, is the kind of action movie that Hollywood is saturated with, a brash, loud shoot ‘em up that is light on plot and heavy on gunfire. Except this one is smart, funny, and doesn’t take itself at all seriously. Its familiarity means that you can’t exactly call it a reinvention of the genre, but it is certainly a refresh, and an incredibly entertaining one.
It all starts relatively calmly. In seventies Massachusetts, two groups come together to complete an arms deal in an old warehouse. On one side are two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and their sidekicks, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). On the other side are the sellers, Ord (Armie Hammer), Vernon (Sharlto Copley), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). Justine (Brie Larson) is the middle-woman there to make sure the deal goes smoothly.
They all meet, the guns are tested, the money changes hands, and the transaction looks to be wrapped up. Harry, however, has an unresolved grievance with Stevo and only moments after seeing his antagonist, the first gunshot is fired. From there, this relatively civil piece of business descends into absolute carnage.
The film gets off to a shaky start, before it gleefully takes the safety off. Some of this motley crew seem like caricatures at first, little more than a collection of funny accents coming together to insult each other using the most flamboyant language they can muster. Vernon is a particularly repulsive character, but it soon becomes clear that this is by design. Sharlto Copley takes to his role with enthusiasm, his exaggerated South African drawl escalating to inane shrieks when everything kicks off. In a film full of one-liners, he draws the most laughs.
By the time the last bullet has been fired and the gunsmoke clears, the cast look like they have been dragged through hell. They are shot, stabbed, beaten and generally raked face first through the dirt for ninety minutes. The final part of the film is shot more like a horror than an action movie, a redirection similar to the bizarre ending of Kill List (2011). At one point, a sweaty, bloodied Justine tries to escape an attacker and a shot of her hidden around a corner is like something straight out of a slasher movie.
Accordingly, the violence of Free Fire moves from the comedic, carried early on by Vernon’s increasingly hysterical patois, to the outright disgusting. It is only at this point that Free Fire really feels like a Ben Wheatley film, when it matches the graphicness of the horrible hammer scene in Kill List or the bludgeoning of the obnoxious walker in Sightseers (2012). By this time, you will be so inured to the gunfire that it barely feels threatening anymore, so a couple of particularly grisly accidents seem even more horrific.
Considering the film is entirely based in the same location, there is an incredible sense of dynamism. The characters stumble and throw themselves around the warehouse, to the point where it becomes difficult to keep track of where they are in relation to each other. It all feels like one long action scene, but some shrewdly placed lulls in the chaos allow us and the characters a well-deserved breather. And it is loud, like few action films are. Every gunshot reverberates in the confines of the warehouse – and the cinema – and the clatter of automatic rifles will make you long for a ceasefire.
Ben Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump have some fun with Brie Larson’s character. Clearly aware of the increasing scrutiny of women’s roles in the film industry, they make sure that Justine is constantly underestimated by her peers, treated as little more than a ‘chick’ who is caught in the wrong place. Larson plays the character well, reassuring the fragile egos around her one minute, shooting back at them the next. If there’s any character who is easy to root for in Free Fire, it’s Justine.
Every film Wheatley makes is a step up in scale from the last. With High-Rise (2015), the director started working with major Hollywood stars (Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons) for the first time, and Free Fire carries on the trend. However, he has managed to retain the dark, comic style that made his earlier films so special, the disregard of genre conventions that made them so tricky to categorise. It will be interesting to see where Wheatley goes from here; there’s no doubt that he has the talent to move into bigger-budget Hollywood movies, but if he did, would he be able to preserve those characteristics that make his films so wonderfully unique? Free Fire is noisy, explosive, and entertaining, so perhaps that goes some way to answering the question.
More by Ben Wheatley
High-Rise (2015) – Tom Hiddleston stars in Ben Wheatley‘s dark, comic adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel. The step up from low-budget indie films doesn’t soften Wheatley’s particular style of madness, as High-Rise is macabre, disturbing, confusing, and one of the director’s best films.