Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, an audacious feature-length shootout enlivened by a cracking lineup of lowlifes who won’t all make it out in one piece, pummels you from the start. It’s relentlessly brutal and surprisingly hilarious, the blackest of black humor seeping from its pores. As an exercise in action it delivers one string of thrills after another, even before a fella plays the gender card with Brie Larson, the film’s lone lady and the kind of woman who won’t think twice about sending a pistol shot back across the bow: “You seem like a nice girl,” he pleads.
How very wrong he is.
There are no nice girls or boys to be found in Free Fire, Wheatley’s most commercial and most polished genre outing to date (it's executive-produced by Scorsese). It opens on an assault on the synapses, dropping us into one grimy 1970s Boston night riding shotgun with a pair of misfits veering toward fate in a beat-up Winnebago. Stevo (Sam Riley), a junkie with a nasty black eye, rolls expletives off his Southie tongue, peering at his fresh bruise.
“I look like I tried to fuck a reluctant panda bear,” he whines, smoking heroin to soothe a headache when there’s no aspirin to be found. A reluctant panda bear.
There’s a canny economy to lines like that, delivered with swagger by Wheatley’s excellent ensemble of stars, which breathes brazenly specific life into the world of Free Fire. It’s brutal and hysterical at the same time, a dark action-comedy fueled by vitriol and violence, littered with carnage, and contained entirely within the walls of an abandoned warehouse.
Stevo and his buddy Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) are two of the low-rent thugs recruited to help Irishman Chris (Cillian Murphy) and his pal Frank (Michael Smiley) procure a huge shipment of guns for the IRA. American fixer Justine (Brie Larson) and arms broker Ord (Armie Hammer) have arranged the deal with a South African dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his ex-Black Panther partner, Martin (Babou Ceesay), who have reinforcements of their own in Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor).
Creedence Clearwater jangles on the soundtrack as Chris, Justine, and their teams march into the meeting, the electric blues, reds, 1970s shit-browns of their outfits blending into the dingy walls of the long-abandoned factory as they lug along a briefcase full of cash. With so many colliding personalities it’s not long before hilarious microaggressions make their way to the fore, establishing hostilities between characters that will play out in personal bursts of violence later.
There’s a bit of flirtation, too, between no-nonsense Justine, the only woman in the group, and the cool-headed Chris before both nip the possibilities in the bud. What’s the point of starting something that has no future?
Wheatley co-wrote Free Fire with Amy Jump after the pair’s collaborations on Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, and his most recent feature, the flawed but deliciously eccentric High-Rise. Here, in the Toronto Film Festival’s opening night Midnight Madness entry, he exercises total control over a single location—the sprawling fortified tinderbox that is the abandoned factory—and transforms it into a world unto itself littered with garbage and scraps and broken glass.
Human nature makes for suspicious bedfellows with volatile criminals, but it invites downright carnage when a crap ton of guns enter the equation. What should have been a routine arms deal starts to go south fast, of course, and Wheatley milks his characters’ attempts to deescalate the situation for even more laughs. When the inevitable first bullet is shot, it still unfolds with surprising hilarity; emotions explode, combatants pick sides, and Wheatley unleashes the ensuing mayhem in a viscerally gorgeous sequence.
Upon this battlefield walk crooks and thieves, foot soldiers, and imbeciles. It hardly matters who’s strapped; Free Fire argues that guns in the hands of idiots and killers are lethal weapons, just the same. But just as spectacular as the hail of gunfire raining thousands of bullets upon the screen is the idea that these motley criminals squaring off against one another are really only human, after all.
They have puny bodies that get shot up. They barely hit their targets. Their wrath is vicious and animalistic and sometimes just plain immature, and when everyone has a gun in their hand, well, using it seems like the easy answer, doesn’t it? And that’s all part of the equation. When even more unexpected developments escalate the stakes and send everyone ducking for cover behind cinder blocks, Free Fire kicks into high gear with unadulterated glee.
It’s a Hollywood cliché when the good guys win the day by felling their enemies with a single shot, or manage to escape hailstorms of bullets superhumanly unscathed. These are not the good guys. They shoot, they miss, and they get shot aplenty, slowly bleeding out while scrapping to load the next clip. To die a swift death would be kindness wasted on this lot. And as the bodies pile up and the stakes get higher, animal instincts kick in. Hammer’s snarking Ord lights up a cigarette and grabs a bigger gun, relishing in the chaos: “Now we’re cookin’!”
Wheatley displays a fine knack for contained action and a wickedly droll sense of humor, particularly when it comes to Copley’s ridiculous leisure suit-wearing Vernon. “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and never got over it,” Larson’s Justine deadpans.
Just when suspicions, alliances, betrayals, and gunfire leave just about everyone hobbled by bullets, the ridiculousness of this blood-soaked arena reminds us that even these crooks, killers, and cheats are mere mortals. But by the time Wheatley brings Free Fire to its final act, people wriggling their bleeding, exhausted bodies across debris-dusted ground littered with broken glass and lost compatriots, the agony gets a bit exhaustive.
Wheatley seems to know that. He counters the threat of repetitious monotony with left-field quips that perfectly suit his characters, like when one poor wimp pauses between gun battles to complain about his dust allergies. He gives his characters space to breathe, reload, and ponder their sorry states so we can also recalibrate who we understand them to be. After snagging a rare Portishead cover for High-Rise, he got the band’s Geoff Barrow to collab on the Free Fire score, while giving us the gift of John Denver softly crooning from an 8-track cassette as the bodies pile up.
The beauty is that while Free Fire is entertaining as hell for those who can appreciate its raw, rated-R, violent outbursts, one could also read it as a microcosm for America, the world, or the human race at large. Aren’t we all trapped in one dingy factory or another, bristling at our enemies, partaking in some senseless conflict or another? Free Fire is a film that remembers its bumbling criminals are people too—well, the basest of unscrupulous people, each out only for him and herself—and lets them swagger and stagger their way through to their own tragic ends, just like the rest of us.