Cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor, Enzo Cilenti
Director: Ben Wheatley
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Ben Wheatley has always been a filmmaker fascinated by the breakdown of social rules and normative behavior. In films like Kill List, A Field in England, and especially last year's High Rise, the British director has mined the breakdown of modern society to both comedic and horrific effect. With Free Fire, he's made his most mainstream picture; a high-concept genre exercise which uses familiar stereotypes and clichés in order to stage one long shootout inside a warehouse.
Working with longtime collaborator Amy Jump (who co-wrote the skeletal script), Wheatley sets up a series of character types we've grown accustom to in Tarantino-inspired crime films and strands them in a single location; a Boston manufacturing plant where a supposed arms deal is set to commence. There's the smooth turtle neck-wearing interlocutor, the "too old for this" veteran, the hot-headed junkie, the loose-cannon arms dealer, and in the case of Brie Larson, the sleekly dressed business associate who separates herself from the riff-raff simply by being the one female of the lot. Instead of padding things out with unnecessary backstory and exposition, Free Fire spends just enough time during the early moments to establish each character as distinctive enough so that when the bullets start flying, we are able to tell them apart. Clearly, Wheatley is more interested in outsized personalities and the filmmaking challenges of staging one long shootout than in bothering with plausible character motivations.
Once the characters split off into two teams following a violent argument just as the deal is finalizing, the film devolves (rather entertainingly) into a series of grunts, growls, and ricocheting bullets. In between the blustering gunfire (aided by meticulous sound design), the combatants share quippy banter, which many will claim owes a debt to Tarantino, but in actuality, the dialogue is simply highlighting the artificiality of the entire premise. Setting the picture during the 1970s also allows for tacky wardrobe choices and exaggerated music cues, leading one to believe Wheatley is simply havin' a laugh, as they say.
Narrowing its focus down to the bare essentials as characters are picked off (often in brutal fashion), Free Fire achieves the kind of manic intensity Wheatley hasn't achieved since Kill List. An off-kilter, jazzy score often breaks through the din of period appropriate cuts from Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Denver as bodies roll around in dust, crawl through cramped spaces, and clumsily shoot at the flailing movement of shadows. Unlike Kill List and to a greater extent A Field in England, however, Free Fire never reaches the level of true gonzo madness which could have elevated things beyond the level of mere genre exercise. Still, there are thankfully no noble speeches or heroic gestures to be found here, only the sound of grown men yelping and one woman taking it upon herself to unleash hell. The film implies (rather, enforces) the idea that once social etiquette breaks down and power-hungry, weaponized men see massive amounts of cash in their sights, everything will inevitably devolve into chaos. In its small ambitions, Free Fire succeeds as 90 minutes of B-movie lunacy that could be read as a commentary on the the sad absurdity of gun violence, or simply a nasty depiction of deplorable human behavior, set to the worshipful sounds of discharged firearms.