In the lead up to seeing Free Fire, I was a bit afraid that Ben Wheatley was about to make a boring film. Alongside writing partner Amy Jump, Wheatley has helmed some of the most excitingly esoteric British films in recent years. Efforts like Kill List, A Field in England and Sightseers have all been wonderfully unique and deeply, deeply weird. Free Fire, by contrast, seems relatively simple, focussing on a shootout between a bunch of quirky criminals in 1970s Boston that takes up almost the entire movie. Fortunately though, whilst Free Fire is definitely Wheatley’s most accessible film it’s far from boring, and is blessed with the anarchic imagination and off-kilter sensibilities that make Wheatley and Jump such enjoyable filmmakers.
It’s also Wheatley’s funniest film to date, featuring a script packed full of memorable one-liners yelled over endless barrages of gunfire by an excellently game cast. Sharlto Copley in particular is an absolute riot as South African arms dealer Vern, a man “misdiagnosed as a child genius who never got over it”, making even the most innocuous of lines laugh out loud funny through his unhinged performance. Wheatley has cited Tom and Jerry of all things as an influence on the film’s tone and it shows, with excellent use of violence and movement to create comedy throughout. This is a film in which violence has lasting and unexpectedly visceral impacts, with gunshot wounds sustained early on leading to characters having to drag themselves around the warehouse scrabbling for guns and cover. Wheatley manages a nice balance between the wince inducingly painful and outright comedic effects of violence throughout, ensuring that we get a real sense of every bloody impact whilst still eliciting laughs out of some terrifically physical performances.
Free Fire plays out like Reservoir Dogs on crack and is an absolute blast from start to finish
The central question at the heart of the film is whether the premise of a movie-spanning gunfight can sustain our interest for 90 minutes, and happily for the most part it does. The script is sharp and the characters entertaining enough that we’re genuinely invested and entertained by the outcome of the battle, and Jump and Wheatley keep introducing enough new elements and shifting allegiances that the film’s never allowed to stagnate for too long. There’s a nice ebb and flow to the rhythms of the battle that prevent it from becoming an exhausting case of sensory overload, even fitting in some nice character moments amongst the bullets and quips. The film perhaps loses a bit of momentum towards the end but you get the sense that this is almost intentional, as the number of gunfighters is whittled down and those who are left find themselves bloodied, bruised and low on energy.
For the viewer though, Free Fire is anything but a slog. Fast, funny and inventively action packed, Free Fire plays out like Reservoir Dogs on crack and is an absolute blast from start to finish. The excellent cast manage to sell the violent intensity and comedic highlights of the shootout, and although quite how they convinced Oscar winner Brie Larson to crawl around a dirty warehouse in Brighton for six weeks is beyond me, she’s a definite highlight.
I’ve seen some dismiss Free Fire as something of a step down in the Wheatley/Jump canon, lacking as it does the deeper thematic resonance and abstruse nature of something like Kill List or A Field in England, but I think that’s missing the point somewhat. Free Fire demonstrates the imagination and range of this creative team, and if it ends up being more of a commercial success than some of their previous films then that’s no bad thing. Free Fire may not be an all time classic, but it knows exactly what it wants to be and succeeds wholeheartedly and that’s no bad thing. If you’re looking for a good time at the movies and don’t mind a bit of, as Wheatley puts it, “ultraviolence and salty language”, then Free Fire is high class entertainment from one of our most exciting filmmakers.