Ben Wheatley has been one of my favorite indie filmmakers over the last few years, with his consistently stellar and thought-provoking work on projects like Kill List, A Field in England, High-Rise, his contribution to The ABCs of Death anthology, as well as Sightseers, his dark comedy that’s one of my very favorite movies from the last five years. So from the get-go, once I heard about Free Fire, and the talent that Wheatley would be working with on his explosive actioner, I was admittedly 110% on board, sight unseen.
And, thankfully, Wheatley’s satirical send-up of society’s obsession with guns lived up to my lofty expectations (and then some), as he takes the one of the things we love most about action movies—the shootout scene—and stretches it into a hilariously violent character piece that’s as relentlessly paced as it is relentlessly funny.
Set in 1978, Free Fire takes place in near real-time, where a gun deal in an abandoned Boston warehouse goes south in the blink of an eye when it’s revealed that a member of a local IRA gang (led by Cillian Murphy) had an altercation with one of the gun runners working under Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a South African arms dealer who is always trying to figure out the best way to screw over his customers. Unable to control their tempers, all hell breaks loose between the two factions, with mediators/negotiators Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson) getting caught in the hail of bullets and violence that ensues between everyone.
While it may seem like Wheatley took the “easy route” with Free Fire by setting 95% of his story within just one structure, there’s a beauty in its containment, with an insane amount of subtle technical prowess on display from every aspect of production. Not only do you have various cast members staged throughout the room, shifting for advantage whenever there’s a lull in the shooting spree, but it’s a huge challenge for any director to make 90 minutes set inside one primary location feel visually engaging and surprising, but Wheatley does it effortlessly with his work on Free Fire.
Another way Wheatley keeps his story confined within the warehouse throughout Free Fire is by immobilizing many of his cast members with bullets that ricochet off various extremities, forcing everyone involved in the scuffle to slither along the debris-filled floor like snakes seeking refuge from predators. And while the violence is brutally over the top, with nearly 6,000 rounds of ammo used throughout Free Fire, Wheatley still keeps his shoot-out steeped in a sense of realism, at one point even reminding us that “in most cases, it can take one bullet wound 90 minutes to become fatal.”
Written by Wheatley and his frequent collaborator Amy Jump, the script zings by breathlessly at times, filled to the brim with witty banter and zippy one-liners, so Free Fire never gets too serious despite the ultra-violence that’s unleashed on the big screen. The entire ensemble in Free Fire deliver top-notch performances, especially both Copley and Hammer, whose characters have wildly different reactions to the situation at hand, and Murphy also does great work in the film, reminding me that he’s a guy I wish we’d see in more movies. Larson is given considerably more here to do than she was in Kong: Skull Island, but admittedly, I wish we could have dug a bit deeper into her character, because the entire time I sat there wondering just what would bring someone like Justine into a situation such as this (and Wheatley never really provides us with any answers).
A brutally brilliant slice of gonzo action filmmaking, Free Fire is yet another confidently made effort from Wheatley, who once again proves he’s consistently full of surprises as a director. He assembles what might be his greatest pool of talent to date for his latest, and the results are a breathless, frenetically paced thriller that plays out like every action movie fan’s ultimate fantasy. While Sightseers may still be my favorite of his films, Wheatley just goes balls-out with Free Fire, and his unbridled enthusiasm is evident in every single frame of his sardonic and quick-witted game of survival.
Movie Score: 4/5
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more SXSW special features, and in case you missed it, check out our other live coverage of the film festival.
Red band trailer: