Writer and director Ben Wheatley has become a critical darling and film festival favourite, yet always does so within the bounds of genre movie thrills. Along with his co-writer/editor/wife Amy Jump, Wheatley has carved out a comfortable and confident space for himself as a director who can make profane entertainment feel like an artistic statement and vice versa. He’s dabbled in suburban gangsters (Down Terrence), hard horror (Kill List), serial killer rom-comedy (Sightseers), an acid trip period piece (A Field in England), and a twisted JG Ballard adaptation (High-Rise). His most recent movies were his most mature and technically accomplished, yet also signalled a shift towards the deeply esoteric from which Wheatley and Jump might never return. Now along comes Free Fire, a no-nonsense single location action flick laced with morbid laughs and paced with reckless abandoned. Undoubtedly the filmmaker’s most pretentious defenders will feel slighted by the shift to B-movie bliss, but at the same time, this might be the breakout movie that gets Wheatley the wider audience that he deserves. It’s certainly relentlessly entertaining and nasty enough to earn a cult audience. Now let’s see if they arrive.
The setup is simple. Somewhere in 1970s Boston, two IRA soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) have set up an arms deal with a South African gunrunner (Sharlto Copley). They arranged the deal through a business woman with dirty fingernails (Brie Larson) and her wise-talking connected pothead associate (Armie Hammer). They all show up at a mysterious warehouse out of earshot from any Beantown cops. They all bring backup (including Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor) and those backup bodies have some interpersonal beef. The guns weren’t the ones that were ordered. Suddenly a lot of angry folks on the wrong side of the law are trapped in an abandoned building together with enough firepower to have a very serious and meaningful conversation. From that point on, it’s basically a feature long Mexican stand-off with relentless tension broken up only by bullets, bloody, or jokes related to bullets and blood.
The setting of the movie is undeniably the 70s (the delightfully over-the-top fashions and facial hair make that abundantly clear), but the tone is more in tune with the 90s. This is the sort of actor-driven dirty crime movie with sparkling dialogue, sudden violence, classic rock, and slapstick comedy that virtually became a genre to itself after Tarantino. Thankfully, it’s been just long enough since that stream of genre flicks for the material to feel fresh again and Wheatley/Jump are more than capable of making the material their own. This might take place in B-movie land with all of the delightfully over-the-top action that entails, but there is a sense of authenticity to the characterizations that goes a long way towards selling things. Everyone is carefully crafted with clear personalities designed to comedically clash. The violence is relentless, yet grittily real. The humour never stops, yet feels completely natural given the heighten situation. In other words, this isn’t The Boondock Saints and thank god for that.
It certainly helps that the cast is so strong. Murphy and Smiley enjoy doing the strong stoic thing with just enough eccentric character beats to feel like more than British Bronsons. Brie Larson gets to be the sanest head in the room and the most surprising source of action, which suits her considerable talents well. Sharlto Copley gets to play the wild card and as he’s proven since District 9 the guy can go over the top with the best of them. He gets the biggest laughs, followed swiftly by Armie Hammer, whose dapper stoner with a killer’s eye is easily one of his best performances and serves as a reminder why he should be a star. Every actor does well. Wheatley knows how to cast and how to let his performers take control. Given all of the bullets flying, it’s amazing how complete the characters feel.
The film opens with some stylish visuals to set the scene, but once things go south, the camerawork grows increasingly frantic, crammed in with the characters ducking and dodging. Wheatley keeps his violence grounded enough to sell relatable pain, yet exaggerates and piles on enough bloodshed for some Looney Tunes-ish slapstick. While Free Fire stays true to the reality of the world it creates, the entertainment factory is littered with so much dark humour and blood-soaked slapstick that theatres will rock as if they are watching a comedy. This is a blast of brutal entertainment from a filmmaking team who have proven that they can do more, but have committed deliver these cheap thrills as well as they can. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood snaps up Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump shortly after Free Fire hits VOD. If the duo can create something this spine-tingling entertaining with a tight budget and a single location, just imagine what could happen with greater resources. Hopefully, we’ll find out sooner rather than later. Wheatley is on one hell of a roll. It’s hard to see that stopping anytime soon.