It’s difficult to say which is sharper in Ben Wheatley’s latest film, Free Fire: the bullets being fired by the nefarious characters found within or the witty jabs those characters tend to fling at one another between the continual barrage of deadly gunplay. One may kill you, but the other may actually hurt your feelings. As with his previous films, Wheatley presents Free Fire with a gleefully dark sense of humor, the ridiculousness of events playing out made all the more senseless when you take into account where everyone’s mindset is at. That sense of humor – not to mention the aberrantly comical characters – washes the onslaught of violence down all the easier, though, and, with Free Fire, Wheatley once again proves to be a unique voice in the filmmaking world.
A film about a gun deal in 1970s Boston gone wrong, Free Fire’s director moves his characters into play with stealth and precision. Two members of the IRA, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), are meeting their gun suppliers, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay), in an abandoned warehouse along a pier. The IRA members are joined by an intermediary, Justine (Brie Larson), and the gun dealers with their own go-between, Ord (Armie Hammer). On either side are a pair of bumbling helpers or drivers: Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) on the buyers’ side and Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) on the side of the suppliers.
Discomfort grows between the two groups at first when the IRA members realize the suppliers have brought them the wrong type of assault rifle, but things take an even more dangerous turn when the realization that certain members have a genuine beef with members of the other side sets in. It isn’t long before guns are drawn, lines are crossed, and everyone ends up with a gunshot wound of varying degrees of severity. That’s when the real shooting begins.
With all these characters moving about the warehouse set and with inevitable double-crosses hanging in the background, you may think it’d be easy to get lost in all the muck, especially when bullets begin to fly. As one character shouts amidst all the violence, “I’ve forgotten whose side I’m on!” Wheatley’s meticulous grip on his screenplay, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, allows the back-and-forth to breezily wash over you. Their attention to detail plays out as much in favor to the story as it does to filling in the spaces of the film’s confined set. There may be confusion from time to time as to who is shooting whom, but there’s never a question as to who’s being aimed at.
That goes for the gunplay as well as the verbal sparring that Wheatley and Jump include in their screenplay. These characters each have a chip on their shoulder, and none of them are shy about letting everyone else in the room know about it. Wheatley and Jump’s dialogue is extremely quick-witted, and, with the two also serving as the film’s editors, there isn’t an ounce of space wasted in the narrative. This momentum drives the film’s pace with a steady and determined trajectory making Free Fire a completely rollicking and effectively energetic action/comedy.
The same, determined aesthetic can be found in Wheatley’s direction. Once again Wheatley collaborates here with director of photography Laurie Rose, and the team at work behind the camera has an equally strong hand in Free Fire‘s constant momentum. Even with the confined area in which they’re working, the camera builds a solid foundation of geography and space as it moves about the dark and dusty corners of the warehouse. As with the film’s narrative, itself, there doesn’t seem to be a wasted inch of space in the set being used.
Nor does there appear to be a wasted opportunity when it comes to the cast. Each character is allowed their own sense of levity, some laying on the ham a little stonger than others, but it all suits the character at hand. Larson gives a strong performance as the seemingly most rational person in the room as she screams for everyone to “calm the fuck down” to no avail. Copley, on the other end of the spectrum, is a delight of silliness, something the actor tends to lean towards in most of his performances, but it suits his Free Fire character just fine. He seems to be the least self-aware person in this room of violence, but that allows him the more juvenile moments of humor here.
The remainder of the cast is weighed down by solid performances, as well. Hammer and Murphy play equal parts cool but with a slight tinge of macho-headed fatuity. Smiley, a longtime performer under Wheatley’s direction, is always a sight for sore eyes. Riley and Reynor play similar levels of character on either side of the bullet barrage: slimy and completely lizard-brained but not without a modicum of adorable oafishness. Theirs are probably the funniest to watch amongst all the chaos through and through.
All of this comes together in a wonderfully dark but unnervingly funny action ride courtesy of one of the best filmmakers working today. The attention to detail Ben Wheatley and his crew show makes its presence felt in all aspects of Free Fire, some of them with that added bonus of piecing the film’s subtext together after the credits have rolled and the energy exuded has begun to die down. There is much being said in Free Fire about the ridiculousness of violence and the inevitable results from such ridiculousness, but, apart from this, the film is still an absolute joy of chaotic violence and cynical humor. A little bit disco, a little bit punk rock, just a dash of John Denver, but loaded with undeniably funky ’70s cool, Free Fire is another sampling of Ben Wheatley as a filmmaker playing a unique beat on his own drum, and the results of his talent are endlessly rewarding.