Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Babou Ceesay
Plot: An arms deal goes wrong, causing a bloody shoot-out, where everyone finds themselves scrabbling for their lives.
Movie shoot-outs are usually quick affairs. John Wick burns through so many shoot-outs a movie that the sale of bullets in the movie universe triples overnight. Headshots are as easy as breathing. There is always one survivor who walks away, relatively unharmed. Ben Wheatley’s movie is all about questioning the realities of a gun fight. Here we have a shoot-out, doused with a healthy dose of realism, giving us the kind of movie that smartly pulls apart the cliches and expectations of how a firefight might go down.
The set-up takes a mere twenty minutes before the shooting starts, making Wheatley’s knack for writing interesting characters in a short space of time vital. Almost everyone has a part to play in this story, even the red shirts at least facilitating something intriguing in someone else. Intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) sets up an arms deal between an Irish gang (the period and the accents suggest IRA, but Wheatley leaves the politics out of it), and an arms dealer, Vernon (Copley), flanked by cool professional bodyguard, Ord (Hammer). Instantly, everyone leaves an impression. Armie Hammer is on charm offensive, winning favour with the audience with a few sharp remarks, witty insults, but mainly a desire to keep the arms deal ticking over. Sharlto Copley, as usual, falls just the right side between interesting and annoying, his irritating, chirpy self making up the flourish of an arrogant South African crime lord. The Irish are the closest thing we get to good guys, their motives for buying guns kept shadowy, but Cillian Murphy’s affection for Justine, creating a minor love angle in the unlikeliest of places, and Michael Smiley providing the gruff father figure, in the kind of role you’ve always wanted to see Smiley land himself, wins a place in our hearts nonetheless. In fact, when it comes to the heads of the gangs, there isn’t so much a problem, if a little rubbing each other up the wrong way in terms of how they conduct business. It’s the hired muscle on both sides of the deal that cause the issue. Jack Reynor is an unhinged psychopath, too quick to get stirred up and reach for the gun. And Sam Riley plays his most horrible character yet, a bottom-feeding relative to Michael Smiley’s calm mobster. The two of them fall out, a disagreement that drags the entire building into a shoot-out that puts a bloody stop to any deal. Again, it takes twenty minute to pack all of this story and give us faith in the ensemble. Like a Game of Thrones episode stretched to a feature length, we are conflicted on who we are supporting. The Irish have likeable qualities, but they are fighting back to protect Sam Riley’s waste of space stoner, who arguably started it all out of misplaced pride. Sharlto Copley is easily written to be the one character you are supposed to rally against, but he makes you smile one too many times to be a truly hateable character. And besides, if the sellers lose the fight, we end up losing Armie Hammer’s character, a clear fan favourite. And then there is Justine, an interesting figure even if it is simply because she is a woman dodging bullets as desperately as the men, but more so because no one is sure whose side she is on, having professional attachments to the sellers, but technically bringing the buyers to the table. There is a sense that even Justine has no idea who she should be helping in this battle.
And the rest of the movie is simply Wheatley proving how he can stretch one long firefight into a full length feature. But it is more than a director showing off; it is a thoughtful take on how a shoot-out would actually go down. Most of the bullets are pathetic attempts at accuracy, even close up shots going painfully wide of the mark. Just when you think a character might be out of the running, as an enemy trains a gun on him, the bullet flies far off the mark. A lot of the cinematography are separate shots of characters firing and characters cowering. In truth, we have no idea who is hiding from which bullet, or which shots are so crap, the resulting landing point is even depicted on-screen. But this isn’t poor directing, but a purposeful choice by the director, making us just as confused as the characters. Then the opposite happens and a fan favourite might clip a bullet to the side or arm. Not one character leaves this film unscathed, which could be argued a guarantee for a production of this calibre, but few will expect how soon everything goes to pot. As one team gets the upper hand, one chaotic moment sees one side get all but annihilated, characters taking bullets to the arms, killing their accuracy even more, or legs, making them relegated to a crouching position for the entire movie. Most of the film sees the characters buried down in the dirt, praying they are not hit by bullets. There are very few moments of Stallone levels of bravado, and when there are, Wheatley tends to punish the fool who tries such a thing. A great moment that sets everything into clarity sees Armie Hammer, after spending ten minutes crouching behind a wall, shout out a register to figure out who has been killed off. Other witty moments of genius sees one character forget whose team he is on. And the stupid remark grows into something not quite stupid. When push comes to shove, it is every man for himself. It isn’t so much a case of traitors (although there are some snakes in the nest), but an example of the fight getting so desperate, looking out for your comrades isn’t quite an option. Jack Reynor decides dying over Sharlto Copley isn’t quite worth it. Armie Hammer has no idea if Justine is working with or against him. It all builds into a microcosm for violence in general. It is all a bit silly, one argument between two hot-headed idiots, bringing everyone into a bloody fight to the death. Perhaps Ben Wheatley is really putting on an independent adaptation of World War I. Morals aside, Free Fire is simply put, a very good film. Gripping, exciting and a black humour that would have made Tarantino proud… what’s not to like?
Final Verdict: Free Fire isn’t just wildly entertaining, but clever to boot, one of the more promising films of the year.