‘Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kind of lost track myself’. This set up to one of the most iconic lines in action movie history plays perfectly as a neat summation of the entirety of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. A cacophony of bullets that leaves its characters and audience in a deafened daze, you’ll lose track of how many times an empty gun clicks impotently, saving the life (or, at least, a limb) of its potential victim. A viscerally authentic 90-minute shootout, it does what so few action films even try to do in making guns as scary and unsexy as they really are.
That might come as a surprise in a film centred around an arms deal that goes spectacularly and lethally wrong, but all the weapons are clanking and dull-grey, capable of massive destruction, but also more than likely to miss or even hit the wrong person. Set in 1978, this deal is between the IRA, fronted by the calm and collected Chris (Cillian Murphy), and a team of international gun runners, lead by insufferable motormouth Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Brokering the exchange are two slick American professionals, Ord and Justine (Armie Hammer and Brie Larson), who just want to make sure everyone gets out happy so they can head off with their cut.
Of course, nothing works out smoothly. As it transpires, Chris’ stupendously dim muscle Stevo (Sam Riley) had been in a vicious bar brawl with one of Vernon’s lackeys, Harry (Jack Reynor, a scraggly highlight) the night before the deal, and they still have a score to settle. Ord, Chris, and Justine almost calm the situation before the first bullet flies. As the film dips in to slow motion, a pan across the ensemble reaction lets us know that there’s no turning back.
And that’s it really, grand narrative-wise. Individual alliances are made and broken, and there’s a mini-quest to reach the only phone in the abandoned warehouse that Free Fire makes its battleground, but Wheatley and writer Amy Jump have crafted an aggressively plot-less film. Instead, we bear witness as the teams are slowly picked off, becoming ever more hobbled in the process. The overwhelming majority of the characters deserve exactly what they get, so the litany of humiliatingly painful punishments thrust upon them never feels exhausting or gratuitous and, combined with the exceptional back and forth dialogue, keeps Free Fire riotously entertaining.
No one leaves the warehouse for the full 90 minute runtime, so creating a believable sense of place was one of Wheatley’s key priorities. Starting by building the set in Minecraft to help him storyboard the action, his efforts, and those of an exceptional production design team, pay huge dividends, with the geography of the building becoming a weapon in its own right. Impeccable sound design and great cinematography meld with the more tactile techniques to immerse you in the violent ‘70s grit, almost able to smell the blood and dust.
Wheatley has put together a cracking ensemble here, with plenty of British character actors including regular collaborator Michael Smiley joining the starrier cast already mentioned. Even though they’re not all that original, this band of reprobates are imbued with more than enough character by the script and performances to have all of them register as real people in a ridiculous scenario. The order in which they’re dispatched is rather predictable, but when the action is this tightly and densely wound, it’s more than forgivable. Shifting alliances allow for the pairs with the best chemistry to work together, regardless of their initial allegiance, with Hammer and Reynor making for the most watchable team.
There’s an inevitability to the events of Free Fire that is oddly satisfying when viewed from a distance, like a Rube Goldberg machine made out of assault rifles and morons that steadily and unstoppably builds to a really sublime ending. In Wheatley’s films, almost everyone is powered by ego and greed and, thus, almost everyone meets a fittingly nasty end. Free Fire is no different, and though this means that the killing lacks emotional weight, it’s viciously, almost distressingly engaging. Clean Hollywood kills are conspicuous in their absence here – even a headshot doesn’t guarantee a quick end.
It’s not long before everyone is shot in a limb or non-vital organ, crawling and yelling their way around the warehouse. Injuries vary in their severity, and every character finds hilarious glee in discovering someone else is more badly hurt than them. Though the story revolves around absurdly entertaining gunfights, Wheatley and Jump leave us with the message that violence is really, really stupid. You’ll only get hurt trying to solve your problems with force, and you’ll probably look like an idiot even if you succeed. Ambitious and bold in its complete disregard of wider scope, Free Fire is a grimy triumph.