In 1970s Boston, a small IRA group led by Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) meet on a dockside to conduct a transaction with South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his group of henchmen. Directed by facilitators Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson) to a dilapidated former factory, the two groups immediately fail to get along. As everyone begins to needle each other it appears the deal could fall apart at any second. Cooler heads appear to prevail, but an incident sets tempers flaring and the situation inevitably descends into violence.
And that, in a nutshell, is the plot to Ben Wheatley’s sixth movie Free Fire, the majority of which is comprised of a single gunfight set in one location. And while that might sound a little outré at first, the reality is that Free Fire is Wheatley’s most accessible movie in a while, despite it also being one of his bloodiest.
When the mayhem ensues, the ensemble cast find themselves hiding out at strategic points around the factory floor. Lying prone behind inch-high concrete plinths or three-foot wooden weapons caches, they improvise with whatever minimal cover is at hand. The gunshots – and there are plenty of them – are percussive and alarmingly loud. Plonking the audience right down in the middle of staccato crossfire and wildly inaccurate aiming. In some respects, the hideouts, trash talking and perpetual gun battles are a playground game brought to life, but with absurdly deadly consequences.
With its single location gunfight, comparisons will be drawn predictably to Reservoir Dogs – Wheatley himself citing it as a reference point. But tonally, Wheatley considers it similar to Sightseers, and he’s not wrong. It does take a little while to warm up – finding the balance between tension and comedy is problematic early on. But once Free Fire gets motoring we get a very funny black comedy, accentuated by strong violence and doused in claret. Stylistically, we get a bit of shaky cam and some Evil Dead style POV flourishes, but crucially nothing detracts from the coherence of the action.
A fantastic cast has been put together, from Sam Riley’s greasy junkie Stevo, to regular Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley’s stern performance as Frank, there are no weak links. Armie Hammer, sporting an impressive beard, oozes composure as Ord and gets about as close to likeability as anyone. Sharlto Copley goes typically, wonderfully ‘big’ as Vernon – obnoxiously, but to hilarious effect, trying to bribe his subordinates into walking through strafing gunfire to retrieve his money, and randomly taking pot shots at anything that moves. While the excellent Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson find a bond as the only two sensible people in the building.
With the seemingly limitless ammunition going off, Free Fire measures up at times like an adult rated A-Team episode. Interestingly, in an audience Q&A after the screening, Wheatley confided that all the characters, bar one, had a limited supply of ammunition – the actors even going so far as to keep the requisite number of blank bullets in their pockets. And if you ever wondered what would happen if anyone actually got shot in The A-Team, Free Fire provides your answer. Wheatley puts his great ensemble through the ringer. Bullets and insults fly in equal measure. Things blow up, people get shot and crawl around the factory in slow-motion pursuit of each other.
Free Fire manages to walk a fine line between realism and O.T.T. action dynamics, with a magnetic cast of reprobates, more firepower than a small army and a dark sense of humour. It’s an irresistible package from a consistently excellent filmmaker.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10