Bullets whiz, whistle and rip with a darkly comic ferocity in Free Fire, the latest from little known but super talented English director Ben Wheatley.
Wheatley has quietly been establishing himself as a solid indie director of action and horror with obscure gems like Sightseers, High-Rise and A Field in England, along with one of the better installments in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death.
With Free Fire, Wheatley gets to employ his action-directing prowess along with sharp dialogue and snap acting. He’s working with his biggest cast yet, which includes an Oscar winner in Brie Larson, along with Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley.
The film is co-produced by Martin Scorsese, and the setup sounds like the sort of movie he should be making.
Two groups come together in a deserted Boston warehouse sometime in 1978. One group is looking to buy some guns, and the other is trying to sell some. The buyers are led by Chris (Murphy, on his way to a big year with this and the upcoming Dunkirk), an Irishman who is very particular about what he wants from the deal. The seller would be Vernon (Copley), a weasel with a few tricks up his sleeve.
Chris’s party includes Justine (Larson), a contact who helped make the deal happen. The man bringing it all together is Ord (Hammer), a slick dude with a big beard and nice suit, much nicer than Vernon’s. He gives off the confidence of a guy who has done a thousand arms deals before, so this should be an in and out deal, right?
Nope. Tempers begin to flare, and when two people in the opposing parties turn out to be combatants from the night before, a tussle ensues. That tussle escalates, and then a gun comes out. Then, as it turns out, nobody is going anywhere because this is a shootout movie basically stationed on one set.
Wheatley’s staging of the elongated shootout is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and some of those great scenes in Heat. Everybody takes a bullet—or bullets—in the battle, but death never comes easy. As somebody who gets shot in the head remarks, “I’m not dead. I’m just regrouping.”
A huge credit goes out to the audio department for the sounds of bullets traveling through the air and hitting their targets. I don’t think I’ve heard bullets whistle like they do in this movie before. It’s a new sound, at least to me.
Hammer is an underrated actor who should be playing Superman right now over Henry Cavill. He blew me away in The Birth of a Nation last year with a riveting piece of work, and he’s equally good this time out. He has a knack for playing bad guys who are charming, a power he turns on full throttle for Free Fire, along with his comic timing. He gets laughs when he and the characters around him are all bleeding to death, so that’s no small accomplishment.
Larson, as the lone woman in a mass testosterone flare-up, gets to do a lot more than she did in Kong: Skull Island last month. While she is amongst a group of jerks, she might be the biggest asshole in the bunch. Copley gets his best role in years as the fast talking jackass who causes trouble just by walking into a room. The normally sophisticated Sam Riley makes a mark as a sleazy henchman with bad barroom manners.
There’s some mystery involved in the payoff, but it’s secondary to the action, which is appropriately disorienting at times. I couldn’t always tell who was shooting whom, but this works for the movie in adding to the chaos of the situation.
Throw in an extremely well-placed John Denver song, and you have what amounts to a solid, eccentric step in the evolution of Wheatley, a white-hot director who is just getting started.