Free Fire is near-as-dammit the best possible version of the deliberately low-key movie that it’s aiming to be.
It’s somewhere in 1970s America. At an abandoned factory, IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are awaiting the arrival of Ord (Armie Hammer). Ord and Justine (Brie Larson) have brokered a deal between Chris & Frank and Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a South African arms dealer, for the latter to supply the former with a cache of M16s to ship back to Ireland in what should be a very simple transaction. That theory quickly gets blown to hell as the petty grievances keep piling up – Vernon has a massive ego and a short fuse, the guns are not the ones that Chris ordered, and almost everybody on both sides is a complete goddamn idiot. Then things become really heated when it turns out that Frank’s junkie brother Stevo (Sam Riley), whom Frank has brought on the job in a desperate attempt to straighten him out, got into a violent altercation with one of Vernon’s men, Harry (Jack Reynor), over something unconscionable the night before. Words and fists are exchanged, and then somebody pulls a gun…
This is the incredibly simple premise that constitutes Free Fire: 30 minutes of watching different levels of entertainingly terrible characters in ridiculous 70s outfits be awful to each other, slowly bubbling the macho tension to the boil, before things violently spill over in what is effectively an hour-long shootout. It’s a film completely stripped of anything that could be considered in any way extraneous – the film never leaves the factory, it is primarily the same ten characters the whole way through, backstories for each are minimal with most of the information about each character coming from their actions during the setup, and if there was a thematic undercurrent to proceedings then I didn’t catch on to it – in favour of translating one of those finger-gun battles that were a common staple of children’s playgrounds into a cinematic format.
It’s the kind of giant free-for-all where everybody’s wildly shooting at everybody else at such a frequency and ferocity that more casual participants can forget whose side they’re even supposed to be on. Where every bullet doesn’t kill you cos it totally just hit your shoulder pads rather than any vital part of your body. Where everybody has unlimited amounts of ammo for unexplained reasons until the most inopportune of moments. Where things eventually just devolve into a lot of people crawling around pathetically in a desperate attempt to finish off everyone else for reasons that only make the barest of logical sense to everybody except those doing the shooting – during a brief lull in combat, Vernon starts shooting again under the pretext of having been “disrespected.” That physicality ends up being a large part of the film’s humour, too, the sheer manic flailing displayed by the cast as the film drags on taking a Sam Peckinpah riff (with elements of whichever sweary and nasty 70s B-Movie auteur you prefer thrown in for good measure) and turning it into something almost Looney Tunes in its hyper-silliness.
As you may have gathered, Free Fire purposefully aims lower than any of director Ben Wheatley’s other films so far. Although it lacks the tangible cynicism that usually accompanies this observation – the film radiates too much fun and personal idiosyncrasy to be misconstrued as cynical in any way – this has clearly been positioned as a more mainstream calling card for the fast-rising British director. The kind of genre fare that gets placed in various Midnight Movie programmes for many years down the line, where first-semester college film student dorm rooms are adorned with its various (gorgeous) posters. So, ultimately, that’s also why it is inarguably his weakest film to date. It’s a giant empty stylistic exercise, with little else to it beyond what I’ve already mentioned. At a stretch, you could maybe read the film as being a commentary on rampant unchecked masculinity, but the film also relies on that very thing for its premise and action.
No, Free Fire deliberately aims rather low. That said, I don’t consider that a particularly bad thing. If the film were any less than the massive amount of fun that it is, then I would consider it a bad thing, but I do love me an exquisitely-made and very fun genre piece. In fact, Free Fire is near-as-dammit the best possible version of what it sets out to be. The idea of an hour-long gun fight can sound tiring on paper, but Wheatley and his partner-in-crime Amy Jump break that macro concept down into more micro elements, feuds, and tasks in order to keep that pace up – going from that initial exchange, to having to deal with a pair of gate-crashing snipers, to re-igniting the initial feud, to trying to figure out a way to diffuse the situation, and so on. There’s also a special attention paid to keeping track of each characters’ interactions with one another, since very few of them are on the same page and certain brief moments of teamwork can be violently interrupted because one or more of its participants just can’t let prior beef go for even a second.
Wheatley and Jump wring every last drop they can out of their premise, whilst that 70s setting pulls double duty in explaining why nobody can call for back-up and allowing the pair to indulge themselves in some truly criminal facial hair & snappy suits from the era. And they manage to stage and edit the firefight with surprising coherency. Logistically, this must have been a nightmare to organise and edit, but it’s almost always clear where everyone is in relation to everyone else and who is shooting at whom, with the few instances where it’s not creating the intentional effect of disorienting the viewer in the same way that the cast are. The script does a very good job at crafting a varied cast of characters when it could have been very easy for each of them to become interchangeable and samey, and it is often very funny, albeit not as funny on paper as it often thinks it’s being.
That’s where the cast comes in. Stacked from top-to-bottom with a mixture of big names and talented character actors, they’re more than up to the task of picking up the slack when the script occasionally lets them down and turning quips that otherwise wouldn’t be that funny into howlers, as well as finding a hundred different ways of yelling out the f-word. They’re all clearly having the absolute time of their lives playing thoroughly awful people and staging an over-the-top gunfight, and that enthusiasm is properly infectious. If any member of the cast were anything less than a hundred percent committed, then the film as a whole would collapse totally. Fortunately, though, everybody is game for everything, with riotous performances coming out of both the expected (Brie Larson gets to remind you that she’s capable of some of the best eye-rolls in the business) and the unexpected (Jack Reynor continues his recent redemption streak for Transformers: Age of Extinction whilst Sam Riley nearly runs away with the whole film singlehandedly).
Like I said, Free Fire is almost likely going to be a minor footnote in Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s respective careers once they both finally wrap up and get those giant deserving retrospectives, but that’s by design. Free Fire isn’t trying to go down as a classic, it isn’t trying to blow minds, and it isn’t trying to say anything at all. It’s a 90-minute style exercise, an attempt by the pair to make a slice of lean, mean genre fare. I can’t really fault them for it, to be honest, not when I had this much fun with the film and not when it is as close to the perfect version of what it set out to be – it even starts wrapping up at the exact moment fatigue sets in and thoughts start to form that maybe it will overstay its welcome. Free Fire will not change lives, but not every film needs to. Sometimes all a film needs to be is riotous fun.
Free Fire is out in UK cinemas on March 31st and US cinemas on April 21st.
Callie Petch fills up your senses like a night in the forest.