It’s 1970s Boston. Two gangs of thugs meet in a seemingly abandoned warehouse to enact a simple exchange: cash for guns. Problems arise, witty retorts and gunshots ring out, while double and triple crosses reveal themselves behind-the-scenes. Sounds like the plot to eighty percent of all crime films in existence, right? Except in director Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, this story plays out as one hyperviolent and meticulously choreographed shoot-out until the film’s final frame.
There is absolutely no way this film should work. Even with a smorgasbord of talented actors (Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson just to name a few), the sheer audacity to attempt a film that takes place in one isolated location and consists of consistent gunfire for ninety minutes is insane. There is only so much character development and excitement you can induce with a plot this flimsy before your eyes tire of checking your watch. It has to grow monotonous halfway through, right?
I know that’s what I thought, and I’m absolutely giddy to see Wheatley throw down his gauntlet of WRONG. Free Fire is a balls-to-the-wall crime caper where his character archetypes (the boss, the muscle, the flamboyant arms dealer, the damsel) is cast with actors who know how to flesh out even the most tepid material. That’s the brilliance in the film’s design, as the only conceivable way this bullet ballet evolves into anything more than a glorified gimmick is by stacking the deck with crafty thespians.
And stacked it is. From the opening minutes establishing the bare-bones plot, we witness talent already plucking our sympathies as we begin placing our bets on who – if anyone – is making it out of these hunger games alive. Murphy’s Chris is the hardened veteran with a survivor’s instinct, but can he protect his boss? Hammer’s Ord is little more than a well-compensated middle man – too intelligent to live in this world, yet too gluttonous to leave it – surely he deserves an extended life? Larson’s Justine is a lone cub lost in a den of overcompensating wolves, we would never lose her…would we? It’s akin to witnessing an Agatha Christie novel brought to life if it was adapted by John Wick.
Then there is Sharlto Copley – bravely riding the line of camp in a manner few actors have ever achieved – who once again steals every scene as Vernon, an arms dealer with questionable ethics and ironic fashion sense. In any other film in this genre, this is the darkest guy in the room, the savage beast among the wild. But Copley tosses caricatures to the wind and loads Vernon up with a heightened South African accent and enough nutty nuance to keep us begging for more long after the credits roll.
Casting this bevy of criminals and supplying them with a cornucopia of quippy dialogue is what keeps us invested, but staging the entire film as one elongated set-piece is what keeps us entertained. Whoever greenlit this gem has a level of faith that rivals Scientology, as they had the solemn confidence to allow Wheatley to paint his canvas bloodier than a Sam Raimi fever dream. He maneuvers his characters around this warehouse of death as pawns on an exceedingly violent chessboard, carefully insuring each move strategically leads to the next.
As we reach Free Fire’s intensely sadistic final reel, many will draw comparisons to Quentin Tarantino or even Guy Ritchie. There is a darkly comedic vibe that certainly echoes the past of those filmmakers. The problem I have with these connections is that it drowns out the subtle fact that I have never seen a film of this type that works this well. I meant what I said at the beginning, this movie just should not work.
But it does. With High-Rise and now Free Fire, Ben Wheatley has firmly established himself as a visionary director of the future. And frankly, it’s about time to start comparing newer filmmakers to him.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley
Written by Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Directed by Ben Wheatley