Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is essentially an hour and a half long shootout. How you react to that sentence is a good indicator of how you’ll react to the film. If you think that sounds like an entertaining way to spend ninety minutes (watching the film, not in a shootout) then you’ll probably have a good time. If it sounds like an exercise in tedium, then you probably won’t have a good time. I fall into the former category, and I definitely had a good time. A good, bloody and darkly humorous time.
We’re in 1970s Boston, outside a warehouse where an arms deal is about to take place. Two IRA members (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are led by Justine (Brie Larson) to meet Ord (played by a magnificent beard attached to Armie Hammer), who introduces them to arms dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). The IRA are joined by dogsbodies Bernie and Stevo (Enzo Cilenti and Sam Riley), while Gordon and Harry (Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor) wait outside with the merchandise. I think that’s everyone. Anyway, someone recognises someone else, tensions rise, and the shooting starts.
As a writer, Ben Wheatley (with frequent collaborator Amy Jump) has a knack for displaying the familiar in unusual ways, and he’s done the same for the Hollywood shootout. Free Fire isn’t so much a film about people shooting at each other, as it is a film about people trying not to get shot. When the deal inevitably goes south, everyone runs for cover and pretty much stays there. They might take the occasional potshot, or run/limp/crawl from one position to another, but they mainly just shout at each other. It’s all wonderfully undignified.
Given the near-banality of proceedings, they’re a lot less chaotic than you might think. Wheatley uses cinematography and editing to ensure that we know where everyone is in relation to everyone else. Production design is utilised as well. The warehouse, with its uniform browns and greys, could have compromised the sense of space, but there are landmarks peppered around to help us keep track of everything.
The action, though, plays second fiddle to the script. Free Fire, like all of Wheatley’s work, has a delightfully dark sense of humour. In keeping with the this-ain’t-Hollywood sensibility, the characters, each well drawn, taunt each other more than they shoot each other. The actors are game, embracing Wheatley’s humour and running with it. Copley, especially, is hilarious. He spends much of the film concerned about the suitcase full of money lying in the open; but, ever the coward, he won’t go for it himself, instead demanding, coaxing, pleading with his loose allies to get the case. He also fashions cardboard armour at one point.
The film produces a few wild cards to keep things interesting, but loses momentum in the third act, presumably when Wheatley realised he needed something resembling climax and resolution. Free Fire’s biggest issue, however, may be its self-contained nature, ironically the very thing that carries that much its appeal. The action never leaves the warehouse, which is fine, but there is no real sense that it ever could, that there is even a world outside the warehouse. Some of the character know each other already, others form relationships that could have gone somewhere, but none of it really seems to matter. This is a shootout in a warehouse, and that’s all it ever is.
Of course, that may not be a problem at all. Free Fire never pretends to be anything but a shootout in a warehouse. It’s a film with a very clear mission statement: “Do a ninety minute gunfight.” Mission accomplished, then.