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No one is going to call the movies of Ben Wheatley an easy watch, with his movies often an uneasy mix of violence and black comedy that certainly challenge if not confound. And so it is with Free Fire, a quirky bit of mayhem that is a tinder box of Wheatley-ism and for fans, another reason to join the ranks.
If there is anything that defines this sub-genre of crime thriller, it is the collection of loose-cannon, fast-talking types and the ever-present weight of jittery tension, always with the question, who’s going to crack first? With that premise, it usually becomes a bit of a slow burn leading to the inevitable showdown but with Free Fire, it’s all about the showdown in a blazing gun fight that is the story in a movie that, typical of a Wheatley experience, is a rollercoaster of style, anarchy, and dark humor.
In an abandoned factory, a gun deal between two nnervous parties goes sour, beginning when the seller brings the wrong rifles. It’s 1978, and IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), and their thugs are looking to score big on a few crates of M-16s, working with middleman Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), who are brokering the deal with Martin (Babou Ceesay) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the latter of which is a bit of an egomaniac, who doesn’t take kindly to the attitude he’s getting for bringing different guns than ordered. But when one member of his team recognizes an enemy on the other side, words are exchanged, and then punches, and finally, bullets. And like a lit match tossed in a barrel of firecrackers, it all goes boom from there.
The most compelling thing about Wheatley’s take on this bit of chaos is his commitment to the premise, briefly staging the pandemonium before spending the remainder of the film’s 90s minutes in the large factory as the ensemble cast shout and shoot at each other. As the battle breaks out, the bad guys on both sides run for cover on the cluttered factory floor, with one of them even admitting he doesn’t even know which side he is supposed to be on. And nor do we, as the shooters desperately try to keep themselves alive while barking jabs at each other.
Nobody has any personality as it’s simply kill or be killed as the minutes tick by and the wounded and bleeding struggle for cover, the violence kicking up as the pressure mounts to escape. Like Wheatley’s previous film High-Rise, it builds fast and is less concerned with the outcome than the immediacy of the action, tearing it up with lots of gruesome style as the players end up reduced to crawling sacks of burned, bloodied, and beaten bodies, one-by-one meeting their doom.
The cast is really strong with Larsen, the only female in the group, showing some serious action chops, and Murphy doing great work as well, though it is Hammer–who is almost unrecognizable–that comes off best, in a smart, funny, and commanding turn that easily stands as some of his best work.
There is nearly no score either, aside from a few era-defining tunes and a recurring John Denver tune looped on an 8-track that pops up now and then, so the movie is left to the characters and action to carry the emotional weight, and while it admittedly gets bleak after about an hour of it, there’s no pulling away from seeing who will be the last one standing as loyalties and friendships are tossed to the winds early. A wild bit of madness, it won’t be for everyone, but for fans, will be everything expected.
Movie description: Free Fire is a 2017 crime thriller about a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs that turns into a game of survival.
Director(s): Ben Wheatley
Actor(s): Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy