Given the nature of his other films, you might think that director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise) is making some grand statement about the way we depict violence on screen in his latest, Free Fire. The trailers highlight some manic gunplay and clever one-liners, but surely there’s more going on under the surface. Those trailers sell the action hard, and the film more than delivers on that front. Free Fire takes immense pleasure in running its cast through a gauntlet of bullets, and in that respect the film is a blast. Come looking for anything more, though, and you may walk away disappointed.
The setup couldn’t be simpler: It’s Boston in the late 1970s, and a team of gun traffickers led by smooth-talking doofuses Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer) meet buyers Justine (Brie Larson), Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) in an abandoned warehouse to sell them a truckload of machine guns. Both teams’ hired gofers get into a brawl over events from the night before, and soon the whole bunch are engaged in a ridiculous gunfight that lasts until the end credits roll.
Free Fire is an exercise in seeing how much creative juice can be wrung out of a feature-length action scene. Everyone gets just enough backstory to sketch them out into something more than a charming face in a 70s leisure suit, but only just. The outfits are pretty great, to be sure, but the only thing more fun is seeing them slowly get dirtier and bloodier over the course of the film. Naturally, this conceit wears thin around the halfway point, and Wheatley never manages to switch gears. What you see in the first act is pretty much what you get at the end of the third.
What’s most striking is the way in which the action scenes are constructed. Once the shooting begins, it never lets up, but each individual outburst moves as its own little setpiece, and each character gets plenty of moments to shine. The initial blast of gunfire is wild and chaotic, but once the film settles into its groove, every new sequence features a different set of combatants under different circumstances. It’s not a question of who gets shot, but how many times. No one walks away from this film without at least three bullet holes.
Later sequences force the characters to become more ruthless, and the tone shifts accordingly into something a bit more sinister. One character chases another down a dark hallway, and even though both are crawling because they’ve both been shot in the legs, the sequence is lit like something out of a horror film. The sheer thrill of a cinematic shootout ultimately gives way to grim reality as these people get serious about killing each other.
With roughly a dozen combatants and ninety minutes to fill, it only makes sense that eventually everyone would run out of bullets. Well, technically they don’t, but the fighting doesn’t stop just because someone’s clip is empty. When guns stop being useful, characters start throwing bricks at each other, setting one another on fire, smashing each other with crowbars, and so on. If people are set on killing one another, they’re going to find a way to do it by hook or by crook. In the end, the result is always the same.
But to bring this back home, Free Fire is an action movie that features one character taunting another like a child and tickling him into submission. Yes, tickling. This is an inherently silly movie full of blood and profanity and tons and tons of reckless violence, and also a bizarre left-field sense of humor. It’s a whole lot of fun if you’re looking for a quick hit of action, but it strikes me as Ben Wheatley punching below his weight. The movie feels like watching your favorite sports team at practice. You get to see them work on some fundamentals and practice a few new tricks, all with the understanding that they’ll use what they learned here on something better down the road. Or at least, one can hope.Liked This? Share It!