I’ve been a fan of Ben Wheatley ever since ‘A Field In England’ blew my mind to such a degree that I still can’t properly define the experience. To that end I think it’s safe to say that Free Fire is his most commercial film to date. Actually that sounds way too pretentious, basically this is the first Wheatley film I’ve seen that doesn’t feel like a Wheatley film, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. Free Fire takes the Reservoir Dogs formula of greedy idiots with guns stuck in a warehouse and rolls with it, ending up with a fun and energetic little piece that brings out a great ensemble piece.
Set in 1970s Boston, the film finds two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), teaming up with Frank’s junkie brother-in-law Steve-O (Sam Riley)and his friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti)to help buy guns from South African arms dealer Vernon (Shalto Copley) and his partners; ex-black panther Martin (Babou Ceesay)and dope-smoking middle-man Ord (Armie Hammer) with third-party Justine (Brie Larson) acting as intermediary. To Frank’s anger, Steve-O got into a fight earlier that day and has been left with a black eye.
The deal goes down but not without its problems, Frank is openly hostile to Ord, Vernon’s ego gets in the way and Chris claims that the guns being sold to him aren’t what he ordered. Despite the hostilities a deal is made and money switches hands, that is until Steve-O realises that Vernon’s driver Harry (Jack Reynor) is the man who beat him up earlier that day for bottling Harry’s cousin after she wouldn’t put out. The already on-edge deal gets put under even more pressure when Steve-O brags to Harry about what he did, forcing Harry to fire the first bullet.
And from there the film begins.
As soon as the first bullet is fired the film turns into an extended fire-fight between both sides with the case of money stuck in the middle. There’s a few plot points that comes into play like a mysterious third group with their own plans for the money, a working phone on the upper floors and the true alligence of everyone involved. This is a very simple story of idiots with guns and the singular location allows the madness to keep focused while everyone slowly loses blood over the course of the night.
With the cast as big as it is this isn’t a film with grand characters arcs, rather it allows these solid actors to have a little bit of fun playing a group of dangerous and often dumb criminals. Murphy and Wheatley regular Smiley play IRA members Chris and Frank respectively, Frank is the older, grumpier of the two who has little time for bullshit and just wants to do the deal and go home whereas Chris is younger, more relaxed, a little bit cheeky with some bravado to spare but he’s got a conscience. The two of them have a good chemistry together and Murphy shows off some surprising comedy chops.
Copley nearly steals the film as Vernon, a mis-diagnosed child genius who never got over it, Vernon is eccentric, short-tempered, cowardly and bossy whose only loyalty was to his money. It’s a very funny performance because you could tell nobody really liked Vernon but because he was the man with the money his people listened to him albeit reluctantly. Copley just made Vernon that much fun that even when you hated him, he was just a great watch.
Working with Vernon was Ord, and not to say Hammer a bad actor but this is the first thing I’ve seen him in since ‘Social Network’ that showcased he has the charisma to pull a leading man role. Ord is more than likely the smartest one in the room at any given time, he works as a mediator between Chris and Vernon but understands that caution needs to be taken on both sides. As the fire-fight goes on Ord is more likely to be lighting up a joint than taking part but that doesn’t stop him from protecting his investment, this is a solid role for Hammer. He not only has the style to pull off Ord’s cucumber cool persona, but the comedy timing to back it up.
The dumb-asses of both sides, Steve-O and Harry had a great rivalry going on. Steve-O’s smack smoking junkie never learned to shut his damn mouth and often did things without thinking which is what led to Harry beating the shit out of him, while Harry himself had a short fuse that kept getting shorter with each passing minute. Neither of them had the biggest parts, but watching them play off each other and push each other’s buttons was a lot of fun.
Rounding out the cast was Justine, this is a cruder role than I would’ve expected from Larson, but she sells it well. She portrayd the third-party that held no allegiance, but allied herself with whoever wasn’t shooting her at that moment. She had a difficult read-on at times, probably from having to deal with being the only woman on camera, and having most guys there wanting to bang her.
As previously mentioned this is Ben Wheatley’s film and while it lacked his trademark psyche horror, he does show that he has the ability to branch out in different genres. His last comedy film ‘Sightseers’ was a funny, but dark tale of a murderous couple in middle England and this feels like a next logical step. Free Fire is the lightest film he’s ever done and even then it can get pretty dark with some of the deaths being sudden, violent, and just that little bit overdone to capture the ridiculousness of the situation. For example, there’s a great and grisly scene with a van that’s highlighted by a completely inappropriate John Denver soundtrack. To that end it’s also a lot more frantic than anything he’s done before, with such a limited setting, Wheatley zips the camera around, creating an often panicked sensation which is more than adequate for the situation.
It’s this that makes the film stand out from similar ‘idiots with guns’ movies (and yes I will absolutely be trying to make that a thing now) is that Wheatley plays the whole thing out in near enough real-time allowing him to play with realistic bullet wounds and blood loss. After the first gun-fight there’s only a few casualties but everyone has been shot to some degree and that carries throughout the film. It’s like that for everything and halfway through the film everyone is on the ground trying to crawl away to safety, and that’s only the ones who haven’t lost enough blood which becomes a big problem the more time passes by. It’s such a simple design tactic, but you have to wonder why very few people have thought to implement before.
I won’t lie, there is part of me that is a little disappointed in how simplistic ‘Free Fire’ is compared to Wheatley’s previous works, but thinking about it logically, a director has to adapt and grow if he’s to have any success. Free Fire being Wheatley’s most accessible film isn’t a bad thing at all, the simplicity is in the film’s DNA; take a host of buck-wild character and give them all guns then sit back. The ensemble cast is a lot of fun with Copley and Hammer being the two stand outs and the film’s dedication to watching these people very, very slowly kill each other ensures some great laughs.
I am giving Free Fire a 3 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces