Following up his ambitious but not entirely successful High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley scales it back with the much simpler yet more rewarding Free Fire. When you break the film down to its very basics, Free Fire is just an hour and a half of dudes shooting and yelling profanities at one another in an abandoned warehouse. It’s fantastic!
There’s not too much plot to really dig into, but I’ll lay out the basics. The setting is 1970s Boston. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and a bunch of other dudes from the IRA are trying to buy some assault rifles from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a gun runner who isn’t near as clever or cool as he thinks he is. The two groups are brought together by middlemen Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), who are helping to oversee the deal. After tensions rise during negotiations, the two groups seemingly come to an amicable agreement and begin to part ways. That is until conflict arises between two members of each group’s respective muscle due to a personal spat from the night before. Before you know it, someone’s fired a gun, which means everyone starts firing guns.
What follows is an hour of people shooting at one another without really knowing why or personally caring, only becoming increasingly injured as the film goes on. This lack of personal investment from almost anyone in the gunfight is what makes Free Fire so damn funny. No one is particularly proficient with a gun, so it’s rare for a gunshot to actually hit someone, and when it does, it usually ends up being a simple flesh wound. Before too long, most of everyone is so shot up that they are reduced to crawling around the warehouse, trying to avoid being shot again. Unsuccessfully, I might add.
While in theory, that premise should’ve quickly grown tiresome, but Wheatley smartly introduced new elements to the shootout throughout the film that helped keep the action feeling fresh. Just as the first round of shooting ends and everyone has ostensibly chosen their side, rogue snipers are thrown into the mix to cause more chaos. As the fight wears on, everyone seemingly starts to become more and more selfish, as alliances fluidly shift between this group of idiot criminals.
What really elevates Free Fire is its knockout of a cast. Everyone in this thing brings their A-game. Sharlto Copley is performing at peak Sharlto Copley, delivering a very big performance. Cillian Murphy is hilarious as the all too frustrated Chris, who just wanted to buy some damn guns. Brie Larson is equally solid as well, as she attempts to nimbly navigate her way out of the middle of all this chaos. Every single cast member gets at least one moment to shine in the spotlight, but bar-none the actor who steals the show is Armie Hammer as the overly unconcerned Ord. This obviously isn’t Ord’s first firefight and Hammer’s nonchalant performance is absolutely hysterical. The dude just oozes with natural charisma anytime he’s onscreen.
The film’s biggest drawback, ironically, is the shooting. Or rather, how confusing the shooting choreographed. John Wick this is not. The film does a poor job of clearly laying out the geography of the action sequences. I never felt like I had a handle on where anyone was or who was shooting at who at any given moment. To Free Fire’s credit, this did add to the chaos that the characters in the film were experiencing, but I would’ve appreciated knowing where the hell everyone was.
To contrast this, the film’s sound design is excellent. Where the camera fails to convey the geography of the scenes, the sound mixing of everyone yelling at one another helps establish everyone’s location. Not only that but the actual sounds of the gunfire are extremely loud and impactful, giving each gunshot palpable weight.
At the end of the day, the single best thing about Free Fire is its characters, and the film is very aware of that fact. So much so that Free Fire tries to keep these guys alive as long as possible, to the point where they are all riddled with a ridiculous amount bullet holes and slowly bleeding to death. Even once people start dropping like flies (some in very horrific ways), Free Fire always manages to make a joke out of it. The film has a great handle on its comedic and over-the-top tone and succeeds in entertaining throughout. At the end of the day, this film is just a bunch of lovable dumbasses shooting at each other for an extended period of time for no real reason. And it’s delightful.