Has an action movie shootout ever made you think, “Why couldn’t the whole flick be this cool?!” Fear not, for filmmaker Ben Wheatley has answered your prayers with an exquisite burst of genre mayhem titled Free Fire. Taking place in an abandoned warehouse, Wheatley’s all-encompassing gunfight pins each character behind cover while reducing movement to a safe slither. Relationships are built, conflicts arise and shenanigans ensue all while bullets whiz every few seconds – constant gunplay that still allows for a meaty story to play out.
This is Ben Wheatley doing his best Guy Ritchie impression, but honestly, Guy Ritchie can eat his heart out. Few filmmakers have the balls and inventiveness to pull off such a cinematically defying feat, yet after balancing acts like High-Rise, Sightseers and Kill List, why does it surprise me that Wheatley executes such utter gangster madness with ease?
Set in 1978, Free Fire takes place after an arms deal goes catastrophically gonzo. The Irish wanted M16s, as explained by confidant Chris (Cillian Murphy), yet their dealer – Vernon (Sharlto Copley) – only brought a truckload of AR70s. An argument ensues, but after a bit of sampling, cooler heads prevail and the deal is as good as done.
That’s when Vernon’s lackey, Harry (Jack Reynor), realizes one of the buyer’s party assaulted his relative the night before, and he fires a single bullet that ignites an all-out clan war. The Irish take cover on one side of the large industrial room, while Vernon’s crew hunker down opposite. Once the shooting begins, there’s no way out – unless someone can kill all the competition and walk away with a briefcase full of money.
The beauty of Free Fire is that it’s no hour-and-a-half action movie. Despite a heavy emphasis on bleeding bullet wounds, Wheatley crafts this funny, pitch-black character comedy boasting a perfect cast for the situation. I could list all the names here, but dammit if each character doesn’t have at least once perfect zinger or reaction.
Sharlto Copley skittishly zips about like a scared, leisure-suit-clad bunny rabbit, Michael Smiley does what Michael Smiley does best, and Armie Hammer steals countless scenes as the appropriately confident and skilled muscle. Cillian Murphy cleverly plots, Brie Larson out-masculines the men, Sam Riley smokes crack on the battlefield – this paragraph could go on for pages, but then I’d be listing most of the dialogue in Wheatley’s script. I mean, Babou Ceesay? Jack Reynor? As men/woman are turned to swiss cheese, a mixture of delirium, fatigue and pain make for desperate yet flawed attacks that replace strategy with unpredictably – and wholly entertaining – bullet-frenzy survival instincts.
But, let’s also talk about the firearms shooting – because it’s a total blast. Well, more like hundreds of blasts from smoking guns. Some friendly fire, some unintentional tags, and some tactical snipes directly between the eyes. If The Raid is a beautiful ballet of brutality, Free Fire is a loud-as-shit punk rock party that’s bouncing off the walls with equal parts rambunctious character and nihilistic chaos.
Don’t be fooled by Copley’s pastel outter-wear or the sleazy porn-star mustaches – Wheatley’s latest is positively savage. Characters are dragged within an inch of their life, then given a few extra licks for good measure. This is gallows humor with all dials turned up to 11, as the underground sleazeballs throw insults that cut deeper than the actual bullets themselves. If it looks like characters are enjoying themselves while dancing with the Grim Reaper, it’s because – insanely – they are.
Free Fire is as charismatic a (mostly) single-location thriller you’re going to find. Even in the large, stripped-down warehouse, surprises still shock while keeping count of how many players are still rostered in their game. Wheatley is like a kid in a genre candy store, ricocheting bullets off cold steel to make the most of his trigger-happy predicament. Repetition never sets in, as Wheatley smartly varies camera angles, continually moves characters (like musical chairs) and keeps tension noose-tight with each landed shot. Disregard any thoughts of this being a one-note watch, because when the last chamber is unloaded, you’ll be begging for more of Wheatley’s deadly game of tag.
For a TIFF Midnight Madness opener, it doesn’t get much better than this. How could you NOT love these charismatic criminals fighting it out until the death? Free Fire is a devilishly charming deathmatch that plays with theatrical gusto unexpected from such a Neanderthalic premise. It’s kill or be killed in this charming attack of grim, slapstick finality, as poetically punishing as it is downright dastardly. Few films have the intoxicating staying power of Ben Wheatley’s devious, dangerous and distinguishably deranged survival scenario, ensuring that this action-lover’s fever-dream goes down as midnight madness royalty. It’s on from the first metal projectile – and it NEVER backs down until the credits roll.
Free Fire is a relentless genre assault of bullets, laughs and personality, like a pseudo action movie that cranks intensity to 11 and rips off the knob.