A filmmaker most known for dark, often nightmarish, genre-bending films, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is his most accessible work yet. Inspired by mean-spirited 1970s B-movie shoot-em-ups—obviously pulling from a similar pool as Tarantino did for Reservoir Dogs—Free Fire is ultraviolent, laugh-out-loud funny, and jubilantly vicious, if a bit slight.
Set in 1978 Boston, Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump create a simple story about a gun deal gone bad. Full of era-appropriate cocksure swagger, the situation begins as a veritable powder keg—Wheatley and Jump simply prime it and toss the match. Two gangs meet in an abandoned warehouse, things don’t go well, and they spend most of the 90-minute runtime shooting at each other and crawling in the dirt.
There’s really not much more to Free Fire than that. It has a kickin’ ‘70s soundtrack—except when it disappears completely, leaving nothing but the sound of gunfire and hooligans hollering back and forth in a variety of regionally specific accents—there are enough bullets to satiate even the most diehard devotees of cinematic gunplay, and it’s a total blast. But in the end, while it’s a manic, engaging exercise in big screen mayhem, there’s nothing deeper or more substantial than that. It’s empty entertainment, and that’s fine. But with Ben Wheatley and the fantastic cast he assembled, it’s hard not to hope for more.
The cast is what truly carries Free Fire. Chris (Cillian Murphy) is an IRA soldier looking for a cache of guns to arm his forces. He leads Frank (Michael Smiley), Stevo (Sam Riley), and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) into a meeting to purchase arms from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his crew: Martin (Babou Ceesay), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Harry (Jack Reynor). Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) function essentially as intermediaries, as brokers.
And yes, it’s as good as it sounds with this collection of talent. Murphy’s Chris is bitter and world-weary and has obviously seen some shit. Though that doesn’t stop him from hitting on Justine, who’s had it with all the macho nonsense, but knows enough to play along and placate the swirling male egos that surround her—she may well be the slyest outlaw of the bunch and Larson portrays her with a weary sharpness. Vernon, and Copley’s South-African-by-way-of-Southie accent, wants to be the big, tough man, but is the most fragile, delicate personality of all of them. When lead starts flying, Ord is entirely nonchalant about the whole thing, calm and smooth and cool, with a sense of humor and an edge of enjoyment, all while rocking a dope turtleneck. There’s not a lot of background for most of these characters, but the impression given is that this isn’t the first combat Ord has seen—and Hammer’s performance is a high-water mark for the movie. And Jack Reynor should only play shaggy, long-haired weirdoes with accents, like he does here and in Sing Street, and skip out on claptrap like Transformers and Delivery Man.
As dark and violent as the premise is—two groups of people do try to murder one another, after all, and one dude freebases heroin in the middle of pitched gun battle—Free Fire watches light and fluffy and never truly turns into the shadows. Which is odd for a Ben Wheatley movie. The banter between bullets sets the tone, and even though people get shot and die, there’s little overt malevolence. No one really wants to be shooting at the others, but that’s the way things have to go sometimes.
Free Fire sags in the middle, even at a trim 90 minutes. Given that all the action takes place in single setting, it feels like Wheatley and regular cinematographer Laurie Rose run out of tools and tricks to keep things visually fresh and maintain the brisk clip of the pace. Though the action is well-choreographed, it all gets a bit same-y after a while.
It’s actually amidst the shower of violence and shell casings that the movie is most rote. Watching Chris and Vernon bicker, and Justine’s boredom with all the posturing, and Ord’s casual disinterest, and Harry’s unchecked rage; all of that is great fun. But when the bullets fly, it turns into something we’ve seen before.
Stripped down action to its core, Free Fire is a wild momentary ride, but ultimately a forgettable recreation. Which is something of a minor tragedy from a director who’s whole thing is making movies that stand out, defy expectations and genre boundaries, and stick in your craw. It’s worth checking out, but isn’t likely to be a picture remembered as one of Ben Wheatley’s best. [Grade: B]