Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker who always manages to deliver something entertaining and unconventional—a fresh voice from the UK who has crafted some stylized, polarizing pieces of cinema, including 2013’s “A Field in England” and 2015’s “High Rise.” His latest, “Free Fire,” is another bold piece of ridiculous fun. An irreverent crime caper, it feels inspired by films like “Reservoir Dogs” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” It’s an interesting experiment and manages to be original in spite of all the different movies by which it feels inspired.
“Free Fire” is like the the anti-“Fast and the Furious.” It provides underworld shenanigans and over-the-top antics, but instead of a globe-trotting group of attractive street racers, the cast is made up of charismatic criminals, contained in a potboiler plot which never leaves a dilapidated warehouse.
It’s the late 1970s, and a handful of Irish ne’er-do-wells arrive to purchase some assault rifles. Once the deal is done, they’ll be loaded up and shipped back to Ireland to help arm the Irish Republican Army. The weapons are being provided by an equally shady group of gun-runners, led by a difficult piece of work, Vernon (Sharlto Copley).
In the middle are two poised deal brokers, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Everyone wants this deal to go down smooth. The only problem is a series of personality defects between the groups. It creates an uncomfortable level of tension, which makes it feel like this deal is seconds from going sideways. On the Irish side, there’s a perpetually angry shit-talking leader, Frank (Michael Smiley), and his no-nonsense point man Chris (Cillian Murphy). They’ve dragged along two hapless helpers for the heavy lifting, including a party boy, trouble-making junkie named Steveo (Sam Riley).
The movie’s first act sets up our characters and conflict. Tensions begin to bubble, and before we know it, guns are drawn, and the two sides begin an epic gunfight for survival that lasts the entire 90-minute run time. “Free Fire” is basically a Mexican standoff that turns into a brutal, bloody, punishing extended sequence that drags each character through a bloody, dusty, debris-laden hell. Most shootout movies are super-energetic kinetic fits of physics-defying action. Wheatley takes it in a different direction. I’m remiss to call it “realistic,” because the number of bullets fired and gunshot wounds inflicted are cartoonishly infinite. But it is a gritty gunfight movie—one in which most of its characters crawl from cover to cover while shouting dialogue to one another amid the constant fits of gunfire.
“Free Fire” is a wonderfully mental piece of claustrophobic mayhem. It succeeds because Wheatley packs its industrial wasteland with quality performers who have a lot of fun with this truncated premise. There’s also some beautifully escalating violence that achieves a level of gonzo later on in the film, which feels wonderfully cathartic. There are a few twists and turns, none of which feel all that surprising. The real draw is a collection of entertaining characters who endure two acts of awe-inspiring punishment and watching them try to fumble their way to survival.
One of the best compliments I can pay “Free Fire” is the fact I can’t think of another film like it. There is a metric ton of inspiration at play, but the end product feels brand spanking new. It’s almost as if Wheatley has created a new genre: the inaction film. A movie that makes limited geography and contained storytelling work in its favor. Every inch of ground feels earned as each survivor tries to make their way to salvation. Ultimately, Wheatley has played with the conventions of the genre and has a lot of fun while doing it. It’s not a film for everyone. If anyone goes in expecting an asian inspired shootout movie, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. The combat of “Free Fire” is closer to trench warfare from the first world war: brutal violence, slow gains, and ultimately a lot of futility.