If you ever wondered what would happen if you filled a cavernous warehouse with a bunch of paranoid, vindictive lowlifes with itchy trigger fingers and a bunch of guns, then is Free Fire a movie for you. Ben Wheatley’s latest operates on the most basic of premises, but serves as an excellent excuse for a group of idiots to shoot at each other for about 75 minutes with the grace of one of those goats that faints when it gets startled. This live action cartoon, set in Massachusetts in the late 70s, is ostensibly about a gun deal gone south and the carnage that spirals out from it. You’ve got the Irish contingent, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), here to buy some M-16s for the IRA back home. You’ve got the liaisons, Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), just trying to make things go smoothly, finish the deal and get a cut of the action. Finally, the third side of the triangle, are Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay), providing the guns for purchase, starting things off swimmingly by bringing the wrong type of automatic weapons. And to make matters worse, each side brings along some “helpers” (if you can call them that) played by the likes of Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor. One of them, a lovely meth addict named Stevo, happens to have been beaten up by a member of the opposite party for assaulting his cousin.
There is, to put it simply, no way this is going to end in anything other than bloodshed, and a couple of hot-headed exchanges later, the bullets inevitably start to fly. They’re pretty good shots, but not that good, resulting in nearly everyone getting tagged in the shoulder or the knee, forcing them to drag themselves across the dusty floor of the warehouse from cover to cover looking for that perfect angle to pop off a shot that will probably just hit someone’s extremities instead of anything truly dangerous. In practice, it plays out like a slow motion Three Stooges bit, with Wheatley reveling in every bullet as they careen around the wide open space, everyone more than a little ticked it has come to this but boxed into a corner by their misplaced sense of 70s machismo that makes surrender an impossibility. Wheatley stages it all with a devilish sense of humor, whether it’s making one of the drivers a John Denver fan, blasting “Annie’s Song” in the middle of the chaos, or the inspired decision to let this particular brand of Sharlto Copley loose on the world without a filter.
Copley can be a polarizing figure, the goodwill built up by District 9 quite powerfully dashed by the likes of Elysium, Chappie and Maleficent, but his mania is perfectly suited for what Ben Wheatley is all about in Free Fire. Decked out in the most resplendent 70s pastel “chic” and aviator sunglasses, Vernon is the picture of thinly veiled insecurity, a jester convinced he’s a king. It might be the first time since District 9 that he feels truly suited to a role. He finds his opposite in Armie Hammer, towering over the rest of the cast and preternaturally skilled in the sort of way that commands a room and makes crossing him a bad idea. They make for a fun duo, the two extremes of confidence and ego creating just the sort of combustible element to result in everyone feeling thoroughly justified in shooting everyone else for a very long time. Everyone in the warehouse gets a moment (including a particularly and enjoyably bizarre one from Ceesay) to show some character among the bedlam, and while we don’t have too much of a sense of who these characters are outside of this murder box, we don’t really need one to get on the groove on which Wheatley is operating. Free Fire is just plain fun and exuberant, and its tone serves as a tonic for, but not an antidote to, the violence and bloodshed at its core. It flirts with flippancy, especially as the body count rises and people still find the time to make cracks about beard oil, and for some it might be too much. But for those who pick up what Wheatley is putting down, it’s a hell of a ride.
At its core, Free Fire is a cautionary tale about the danger of giving men guns. Justine’s exasperation at the face the bravado-fueled mayhem mimics the audience, and as the action ramps up and former acquaintances turn belligerents, the absurdity of it all takes center stage. Wheatley stages the action with poise and style, using the 70s trappings of the world as more color than crutch, and allowing his characters to explain themselves through their actions instead of long-winded exposition. And Free Fire truly is all action, a bumbling, hilarious, chaotic mess of action that serves as a delightful bit of genre extravagance. There isn’t a whole lot of meaning as such to Free Fire. It’s not examining the human condition perhaps beyond the male gender’s propensity for quick anger and violence as a tool to solve confrontation, but Wheatley isn’t trying to make any grand proclamations. Those looking for a good time, some charming performances and slapstick gunplay will find an excellent night out with this one.