Director: Ben Wheatley (High Rise, Kill List, Sighseers, A Field in England)
Writers: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Producer: Andrew Starke
Starring: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 91 min.
Two gangs meet in an abandoned warehouse to exchange a large sum of money for a large sum of guns. There’s some tension, maybe a small argument over how to trade off the goods, but it all goes well and the groups go their separate ways, with the A plot of the movie kicking in after that. That’s usually how a gun deal goes in a crime picture, but in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire we never make it out of the warehouse. A one-location movie occurring in real time, Wheatley’s latest is a very simple and low-key affair, a welcome change after last year’s ambitious but disappointing High-Rise. He’s certainly not taking it easy here however, as orchestrating an entire movie designed as one extended shootout is no small feat, and yet this time he absolutely nails it. With a great cast including Cillian Murphy, recent Oscar winner Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and more, Wheatley loads them with whip fast dialogue that flies as frequently as the bullets.
Ultimately, it’s the insults that the characters shout at one another across the blood spattered warehouse that makes more impact than any of the gunshots. Although for their part, it’s nice to see a movie that treats a shootout a lot differently and more authentically than we’re used to seeing in movies. Ricochets are aplenty and do a serious amount of damage, characters don’t die straight away from taking a shot, as most of them sustain several over the course of the movie, and best of all most of the shots the characters take actually miss. There’s no James Bond style assassin who hits a perfect shot every time while the supposedly trained henchmen fire off a hundred rounds that don’t go anywhere close to the leading man. Everyone is more or less on an even keel here, which makes it a lot more fun to watch them hiding and dodging the bullets as they fly all over this place.
If there’s one small complaint to be had, it’s that the location is pretty similar looking all over (naturally) and the characters spend a lot of time hiding or moving between hiding places, with them being framed mostly in very direct shots of them individually, and as a result the geography can get a little scattered and it’s hard to tell exactly where everyone is at any given moment, or who they’re shooting at. That eventually almost works in the film’s favor though, as it gives us an idea of what the characters are feeling the longer the shootout wears on as they become less and less sure who is still alive and where everyone is, or just how the hell they can make it out of there. The action is engaging and at times inventive, with a couple of kills near the end being particularly memorable, but Free Fire’s greatest strength is its comedy and all of these actors work so well in their characters and in their chemistry with one another.
Wheatley really cast Free Fire (which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, it should be mentioned) to a tee, with each actor feeling perfectly suited to their parts and it makes the whole thing sail along. It helps that Wheatley keeps the pace humming smoothly (something he’s had a lot of trouble with in the past), especially with a breezy running time landing right at the 90 minute mark. After trying for some more ambitious projects that didn’t work out so well, Wheatley has regained his mojo by scaling things back and remembering how to just have a hell of a lot of fun with great characters given great dialogue. As an added bonus, setting the film in the ’70s also gives the cast some wonderful costumes, hairstyles, and a variety of facial hair that makes the film pop even more. It all comes together to establish Free Fire as easily the most entertaining experience of the year so far.