Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a black comedy about guns and violence that skilfully manages to avoid glorifying its own subject.
Have you ever fired a gun before? It’s fucking loud. I went on a stag-do to Warsaw last year and part of the ‘fun’ was going to a gun range to fire an assortment of AK-47s, Glocks and M16s into a target. It was terrifying.
I should add that it was also very well organised, above board and our safety was the primary concern of the hosts. But still, I assumed that by the end of the hour my bullet filled corpse would be shipped back to my wife with a gift basket of Kielbasa to soften the blow.
Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of this activity was how it contrasted with my own memories of being a child on a playground, running around with my friends, pretending to shoot each other with sticks and making gun noises. It was exhilarating pretending to be The A-Team, and even more fun pretending to be shot and having all my imaginary guts falling out on the floor. Cut to 25 years later and I’m stood trembling on a gun range, wincing every time I ‘squeeze off’ a round, and battling with the inner turmoil of how I’ve grown up to hate guns yet why the hell am I here now?
To hammer home a point: guns are fucking loud. They’re also really dangerous (even when not pointed at someone), hard to aim, prone to jamming, and they’re messy. You end up covered in grease, smoke and you’ll find empty shells in the folds of your clothes for hours afterwards. You’ll also never want to go near one again for the rest of your life.
And this is exactly how you’ll feel after watching Ben Wheatley’s latest film Free Fire. No longer will you be the 10 year-old running around a playground shouting “bang bang bang, you’re dead!” instead you’ll be the nervous grown-up cowering behind a rock and wondering why we all can’t just get along.
Sure there are plenty of thrillers that show the gritty details and gory aftermath of gun violence. But Free Fire is possibly the first openly entertaining action-comedy to portray gunplay in a thoroughly unromanticised, unglorified manner.
The plot is simple. In a rubble-strewn Boston warehouse in the 70s, ten people of various criminal backgrounds enter to carry out a gun deal. Shit goes wrong. They all start shooting at each other. It lasts for about 90 minutes. You may have a slight ringing in your ears for a short time afterwards.
There’s also an impressive cast of very likeable actors, particularly in the Irish-half of the contingency (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley). Armie Hammer also cuts a humorously relaxed figure as the US broker Ord, Sharlto Copley stands out as Vernon a deluded narcissist and Sam Riley channels as much Pete Doherty as its healthy to muster as the wildly off-kilter Stevo.
Free Fire is certainly Wheatley’s most accessible film to date, and it’s to his and screenwriter/editor Amy Jump’s enormous credit that Free Fire manages to defy all your initial expectations. Despite the macho posturing in 70s polyester suits, the invigorating soundtrack from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (who also composed Ex Machina) and an executive producer credit for Martin Scorsese, the film purposefully stays the wrong side of cool.
Nobody in Free Fire looks good with their guns. From the desperate smack addict hobbling around failing to aim a Baretta, to the lank-haired Bostonian with a tiny revolver firing wildly and accidentally hitting one of his own, this is the least inspiring display of gunplay ever filmed. It’s loud, dirty, unpredictable and wildly irresponsible.
This is the unique joy of Free Fire. Everyone involved in the stand-off is utterly desperate not to get shot, and they’d do anything to survive. There are no acts of bravery, no fancy pyrotechnics, no sexy John Woo-style balletics. Everyone’s culpable for this mess yet hardly anyone knows which side anybody else is on or why they’re being shot at.
At around the 30 minute mark, pretty much every character has been felled by a stray bullet and is now lying in pain and barely able to move. There are repeated instances where we have to endure someone painfully dragging their injured body slowly across the dusty floor from one shelter to another. In some ways this is hilariously refreshing, but the trouble is this also sets the pace of the movie. As individual battles splinter off, we end up watching the same thing repeatedly – as one injured gunslinger drags themselves after another, firing bullets with the accuracy of a Stormtrooper, Free Fire becomes a victim of its own conceit.
Ben Wheatley’s decision to let the violence speak for itself is a good choice, and much of the joy of Free Fire is in trying to keep up with its complicated staging and Amy Jump’s lyrical editing. But there’s just not enough depth to really hold your interest. And although many of the performances are top notch – Michael Smiley needs to be in more films – too many quality actors are left on the periphery with little development. Perhaps it would help us care more if the cast were smaller and the dynamics of the group more focused.
Brie Larson, the sole female cast member, in particular is given short shrift. Her allegiances are somewhat muddied and you don’t get a real handle on her involvement. The dialogue is also disappointingly not as strong as you’d expect, Smiley calling someone a “chocolate tea-pot” is a good example of how the script could try a little harder.
It’s far from an unsuccessful film though. As a black-comedy spin on 70s action thrillers it’s cheerfully entertaining, but Free Fire’s major triumph is in subverting your idea of a ‘cool gun movie’, and makes you realise that when the bullets start to fly you’re more likely to be a scaredy cat than a Reservoir Dog. 4/5
Please note, this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage last October.