Bullets and Barbs Traded in Free Fire

Director: Ben Wheatley Starring: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Jack Reynor, Michael Smiley Running Time: 90 minutes

A high stakes deal between criminals. Clashes of personality, honour among thieves. A job that goes souther than south. And lots and lots of gun fire. If Free Fire was actually made during the decade in which it’s set, the 1970s, then it’s not hard to imagine its ultra-macho story being played considerably more straightfaced. Ben Wheatley and co-writer and co-editor Amy Jump on the other hand, choose to draw out the crime drama tropes to a near-breaking point, not past the point of absurdity but stopping just shy of it, resulting in a madcap action comedy that winds up its entertainingly clashing cast and then sets them against each other in a shoot-out that lasts for over an hour.

It would be very easy to look at the distinguishing feature of Free Fire as a gimmick, and one that could wear out its welcome very quickly. “What if we make a whole movie that’s just a shoot-out in a warehouse?” sounds like the kind of question that a plethora of uninspired film students were asking themselves in the wake of seeing Reservoir Dogs in the early nineties and in lesser hands, the action of Free Fire could be hollow director posturing of Boondockian proportions. Wheatley and Jump thankfully keep the characters and story as simple as the premise itself, producing a grounded film that makes its extended shoot-out feel like a natural conclusion to the opening set up. As its colourful cast meet each other, it doesn’t take long to believe that they would really, really want to riddle each other with bullets.

Cillian Murphy and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley play a pair of IRA men sent to America to purchase guns from a dim-witted, self-important arms dealer played by Sharlto Copley. They get off on the wrong foot on the start despite efforts to keep the deal on track by Armie Hammer and Brie Larson as a pair of American intermediaries. It looks as if the deal is just about to be finished with both parties splitting unamicably forever, when it turns out that minor flunkies on each side (Jack Reynor for the sellers and Control‘s Sam Riley for the buyers) have beef following a bar brawl the night before. Crime movie characters are obsessed with being ‘professional’, but there have been few less professional than this lot and the situation quickly escalates into shooting. The violence that’s shown here as everybody gets hit is of a relateable kind, bullets aren’t shrugged off but there are no instant kills or explosions of blood either, it’s unglamorised, small scale and effective action where every single time someone gets hit you know it really hurts.
With the pain being so relatable it’s also often very funny. The characters are put through so much, so often, that one can’t help but laugh at their plight. Wheatley’s style of storytelling is kind of Sam Packinpah meets Looney Tunes anyway and he leans into that impulse hard with this film. The ringer that the likes of Copley, Riley and Reynor go through is made even more entertaining by the way they play their characters, the most cartoonishly sniping man children you’ve seen in a criminal outfit since Home Alone. Murphy and Smiley would be the straightmen if they weren’t so snarlingly hostile, while Armie Hammer’s over-stylised dialogue and square jaw create an amusing character, someone who seems to be trying to will himself into a movie that’s more Tarantino than the demented mess that’s around him. Larson plays to her strengths, eye-rollingly above it all as the boys argue and call her ‘doll’, she comes into her own more once the melee draws her down to the same level as the dopes around her.
However entertaining the cast might be, a film like this is heavily dependent on everything behind the camera working and thankfully Ben Wheatley is in top form. Last year’s High Rise was a tricky adaptation that became bloated and disorganised in parts, here working with a much simpler idea allows Wheatley to be focused, skillfully directing around the film’s one location (Wheatley apparently used Minecraft to map out the film’s geography) and along with Amy Jump, producing a tight edit that zips through 90 minutes at pace. Story-light but supplying plenty of well-executed action and slapstick, Free Fire is a film that brings many of its laughs through the direction. Considering that bigger budgeted movies that are more explicitly comedies seem incapable of doing that lately, Free Fire has a lot going for it whether you’re heading to the cinema looking for laughs or some good old fashioned action.
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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