In the past decade, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has been subverting and repackaging film genres and classics: with Kill List he made a psychological horror mixed with kitchen-sink drama; Sightseers (my favorite movie of his) is a road-trip dark comedy with the British countryside as its backdrop; A Field in England is an experimental historical drug-fueled trip; last year’s High-Rise is a Kubrick-esque dystopian thriller with social elements.
Free Fire is an homage to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs in more ways than one: all set in one location, gunshot wounds that do not instantly kill, stupid criminals, and so on. But, unlike what the marketing campaign may have led you to believe, this is not an action movie heavy on elaborate gunfights, explosions, snappy editing, and heavy use of pop songs of the 70s. This is through and through a Ben Wheatley film.
Set in the 1970s inside an abandoned warehouse in Boston, two groups are conducting a transaction: two members of the IRA (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are buying guns from the South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) while being supervised by the intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) and the representative Ord (Armie Hammer). However, there is a problem between two henchmen of the respective groups. One thing leads to another, and a shootout ensues.
Usually in movies, whenever someone gets shot, they either die instantly or keep on walking as if nothing happened. But not in Free Fire: if a bullet goes through your leg, you are forced to crawl; if you get shot in the arm, wielding a heavy rifle becomes impossible. The movie is a gun-opera at its most dirty, ditching stylish John Woo-ish gunfights for more raw and gory scenes of visceral violence. The whole movie could be easily seen as a deconstruction of the myth of the firearm, which is too often seen as a tool that solves issues, while in reality violence begets violence, and shooting does not help anyone.
Another important aspect of the movie is the humor: from the first to last frame, there are constant jokes that are thrown your way in more or less obvious ways. The type of comedy is very dark, and is easily going to appeal to fans of British humor: you will laugh when people call each other names, when someone gets shot in the shoulder, and even somebody finally dies.
The entirety of the warehouse is explored early on during the first act, making you accustomed to where specific objects are placed, so that when the shooting starts you rarely feel lost of each character’s location. While a couple of wide shots could have been used (even though they might have broken the flow and intensity of the action), the pacing is so well balanced that you stop caring about maintain each character’s movements and just let yourself go with the endless stream of bullets. Still, the editing could have been slightly improved by removing some shots of characters staying idle and silent behind cover.
Other than the great direction by Wheatley, the movie would not have worked if it wasn’t for the excellent cast. Each actor manages to make his role his own, so that backstories can be dropped completely for you already understand who everyone is just by looking at them and listening to how they talk. While everyone does a commendable job, there are some standouts that deserve mention: Wheatley regular Michael Smiley brings his usual Irish charm; Armie Hammer, his beard and his quiet mannerisms are incredibly relaxing and wholly entertaining; Brie Larson, as the sole female of the film, shows that men truly lose their mind and become chivalrous/stupid/brave/idiots whenever they might get a chance to be with a girl; Sharlto Copley plays yet another quirky character with an hard-to-understand accent, and I can’t get enough of it.
Last, but definitely not least, the use of sound: the effects used for the guns are loud, scary, and immensely effective in showcasing how devastating a bullet can be. Music is not used often, leaving space to gunshots and shouting for most of the picture. There are two instances where music is used that I loved quite a lot: the first is the original track The Phone Rings, used exactly when I thought that the movie was gonna start to lose some steam, instead changing the situation yet again and adding another variable to the equation; the second is the use of John Denver’s songs. I’ll leave it at that.
Overall, Free Fire is another great original movie by Ben Wheatley that, while not for everyone, is going to satisfy fans of action films and dark comedies, thanks mostly to the sharp script and versatile cast. A slightly tighter editing could have made this my favorite movie of the year, but it easily enters the Top 10.
Visual Effects: 9
Violence & Gore: 9
Sex & Nudity: 5
Drugs & Profanity: 7.5
Intensity & Horror: 7