Ben Wheatley has slowly built a reputation as the most intriguing British filmmaker of his generation. Through a variety of art house genre flicks like ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’ and ‘High-Rise’, he’s finally gotten enough attention to secure some movie stars. His plan to capitalize on that success? A vicious action comedy in a tight setting, of course! It’s a blast. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood comes calling sooner rather than later.
After making his most abstract and artistically motivated features, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’, back-to-back, ‘Free Fire’ feels like a celebration of the joys of B-movies from the versatile Wheatley. It’s a genre movie stripped down to a single location and a simple premise. A handful of characters are introduced, a crisis is put into play, and after that it’s an exercise in pure cinema to see all the messiness unfold with blood splattering on the walls and laughs springing up freely from the gallows.
Cillian Murphy stars as Chris, an IRA agent in the 1970s who travels overseas for an arms deal with some Boston heavies. Justin (Brie Larson) is the brains behind the deal. Ord (Armie Hammer) is the motormouth who charmed it into existence. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the South African lunatic with the weapons. Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor and a few others are the muscle. The guns aren’t the ones that Chris ordered. Some side characters from each deal bring private beefs to the party. Tensions rise and there’s a lot of firepower crammed into a single derelict factory out of earshot of any Beantown cop. It doesn’t take long for the first bullet to fire. After that, the fun don’t stop till the credits roll and hearts are finally allowed to stop pounding.
Were this the late ’90s, ‘Free Fire’ would likely be dismissed as a Tarantino knockoff. Thankfully, it ain’t the ’90s and it’s easy to see all the layers of influence. Indeed, the movie has a claustrophobic location, a 1970s setting, sparkling witty dialogue, a parade of classic rock, and a gearshift sense of action comedy where you’re never quite sure whether to wince, gag, recoil or laugh. (When in doubt, it’s best to go for the latter.) The film is a work of pure, giddy, grimy entertainment. Wheatley and his co-writer/editor/wife Amy Jump are clearly amusing themselves and their actors, hoping that will rub off on viewers. (Note: It does.) There’s no grandiose message here, no art film trappings. It’s just a rip-roaring violent romp of the type that movies do so well.
That’s not to say that there’s no artistry involved. The film is shot and constructed expertly, front loading beauty shots to set the scene and establish characters before shoving the camera in corners and in the dirt with the characters (with the occasional projectile POV to spice things up). The costumes are gloriously designed to highlight the very finest in ’70s excess. The script is carefully constructed to build tension that can erupt at any time with a brutal twist, a hilarious joke, or some perverted combination of the two. ‘Free Fire’ moves full speed ahead with gritty efficiency, singularly focused and viciously engineered to entertain with high impact.
The film has clear influences, but no references. Martin Scorsese produced to ensure that doesn’t go unnoticed. The influence of John Carpenter’s wit, terse efficiency and care for character is obvious. Plus, I already used the T-word. Wheatley and Jump stray true to their world and reality. They don’t need to name-check. You’ve either scene the movies they love already and get it or might be inspired to check out those influences.
The cast is a mostly collection of Brits and a few imports playing Bostonians. They all slot into genre types. Cillian Murphy covers the brooding intensity, Armie Hammer is the oddly classy criminal, Sharlto Copley is the nutball, Brie Larson is the one too smart for this shit, Michael Smiley is the kind of guy who exclusively has bad days, Sam Riley is the junkie, etc. They all know the score. They play their parts perfectly and bounce off each other with comedic spark and dramatic sting. Everyone falls into the place. There are no weak links and they all get Wheatley’s big sick joke. It’s like watching a group of immensely talented performers and filmmakers play make-believe that they’re back in the ’70s making one of those balls-out, no-nonsense crime thrillers that inspired them. They pull it off – damn well, no less.
‘Free Fire’ is a fantastic action/comedy, but not one of the ‘John Wick’ school where everyone is too cool, every sequence is cartoonishly over-choreographed, and you keep waiting for the camera to spin around so the director can wink directly at the audience and let them know it’s OK to laugh. This is the type of stylized thriller that plays off real violence, one that knows that a wound or a rattling piece of metal in a character’s hand can feel more visceral that a dozen head shots and slick decapitations. It’s messy, it plays in a realm that at least resembles reality, and the actors commit like they’re going for gold.
‘Free Fire’ is just the type of fun that only talented people who know their shit can produce. Hopefully, it’ll push Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s careers further down the line. If they can class up cheap and dirty entertainment like this, just imagine what they could do with something expensive and dirty.