[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Free Fire opens Friday.]
Ben Wheatley’s films all dabble in the surreal and the absurd to some extent. Sometimes it goes outright insane like the climax of Kill List; other times it’s more bizarre like the murders in Sightseers; or it can go off the rails like High-Rise. His latest movie, Free Fire, opts largely for the absurd over the surreal as he stages a massive shootout inside of a warehouse and has his characters slowly shot to death. That’s really all there is to Free Fire. While I suppose you could struggle to make an argument that the picture is a larger comment on the absurdity of violence, the film seems far more content to be a piece of darkly comic slapstick where everyone’s got a gun and everyone’s going to get shot.
Set in the 1970s, IRA supporters Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have come to Massachusetts to work with liaison Justine (Brie Larson) in order to purchase guns from slippery arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates Ord (Armie Hammer) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). The deal goes south when one of Vernon’s employees, Harry (Jack Reynor), wants revenge against one of Frank’s employees, Stevo (Sam Riley), for a confrontation that happened the night before and the whole conflict quickly escalates into a massive shootout in an abandoned warehouse between Vernon’s team and Frank’s people.
And that’s pretty much the breadth of Free Fire. All the of action is contained to the warehouse, and the whole question is which of the characters will survive the shootout. There are no character arcs or any deeper conflict between these people wanting to kill each other. It’s simple to the point of being borderline stupid, but that’s where the absurdity comes in and the absurdity of these people being willing to die to kill each other is the fuel that keeps Free Fire burning.
While most sane people would try to find a way to successfully exit and flee the warehouse, no one seems particularly eager to find an out. There’s a loose motivation to recover the money and no one wants to leave empty-handed, or that some people want revenge, or that they don’t want to be perceived as a coward by their associates. But Wheatley doesn’t really seem to be that interested with the logistics of the situation. It’s a shootout that seems to play in real-time and yet the sound of gunfire for over an hour doesn’t seem to attract the police. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump don’t even bother with trying to come up with firm excuses for why these people would rather shoot at each other and die than try to escape with their lives. They’re confident in their premise, and in this premise, people shoot at each other until they die.
That casual attitude allows Free Fire to thrive as a dark comedy. Wheatley leans into the madness of the situation, and everyone takes being shot as more of an annoyance than a life-threatening injury. Copley in particular shines as the ridiculous Vernon who at one point takes to fashioning cardboard armor to ward off infection. We don’t particularly like these people, so it’s okay if they die, but at the same time, the performances are charismatic enough that you like seeing these people on screen. Everyone is a shit, but they’re charming shits, and you’ll enjoy watching them shoot at each other endlessly.
Free Fire won’t win any attention for the sophistication of its action, but Wheatley works wonders with the sound mix so that every gunshot loudly echoes throughout the warehouse, and we hear every bullet whiz by before slamming into concrete or metal or flesh. Free Fire may not look like a blockbuster, but it sounds like one, and it demands to be seen with speakers that will let you sense the shots coming from every direction.
However, for all its verve and enthusiasm, there’s still not enough to sustain Free Fire for its 90-minute runtime. At some point, even with little breaks for reloading, moving around the area, and exploring different parts of the warehouse, this is still one long shootout, and that can be exhausting. You can only watch the same people in the same space shoot at each other for so long before it becomes uninteresting, and because it’s such a simple premise, there’s nothing really for Wheatley to build upon.
Although the movie eventually wears out its welcome, Free Fire offers a no-frills, B-movie level of ridiculous violence and mayhem that makes it a constantly hilarious and occasionally shocking picture. There may not be much to Free Fire, but between its unabashed absurdity, brilliant sound mix, and delightful performances, the film has enough firepower to win over its audience.