You never quite know what you’re going to get from Free Fire director Ben Wheatley. From the kitchen sink drama of Down Terrace, the hallucinogenic A Field In England, the nightmarish Kill List and the social commentary of High Rise no two of Wheatley’s films have been the same. What they have always had though is a satisfying layer of dark comedy. Free Fire though is easily Wheatley’s most obviously funny film to date, and yes, that includes the disturbing comedy of Sightseers.
1978 Boston and IRA duo Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have come to buy some guns in a rundown warehouse. Along for the ride are Justine (Brie Larson) who has set up the deal and Ord (Armie Hammer) who is brokering the trade. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the gunrunner who is selling the merchandise. But just as the deal looks like it’s going to go off without a hitch Harry (Jack Reynor) realises he knows one of Chris’ men Stevo (Sam Riley) and so begins a shootout that will leave all peppered with led and anyone’s guess as to who is going to survive the night.
The single location, a meet-up gone wrong, bullets flying and enough blood letting to keep most horror films satisfied wreaks of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. But the joy of Free Fire is everything, including some of the wonderfully satisfying gore, is played for laughs. This is essentially what would happen if The Looney Tunes got into a fight with The Animaniacs. Remember the scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Ducks Daffy and Donald try to outplay each other in duelling pianos? Imagine that with people and gun, lots of guns.
The characters are wonderfully larger than life. Even the straight ones like Hammer, Murphy and Larson all have their little quirks. Hammer in particular is so wonderfully deadpan as all hell breaks loose you cannot help but root for him. Quietly smoking as bullets whizz by as he tries to control the over the top lunacy that is Copley you wish for a prequel that shows how the two characters came to meet.
It would be easy, given the single location, for Wheatley to allow much of the action to be pedestrian. But when the cordite really begins to fill the air so Wheatley’s camera flies and his editing excels. When the smoke settles, regularly but fleetingly, it’s the dialogue that continues to pierce the air with wonderful profanity. What makes Free Fire so satisfying is that both bullets and insults land with genuine regularity and impact. You feel every bullet hitting flesh, every shard of concrete spitting into the faces of the characters.
This is essentially that game you played as a kid, pretending to shoot your friends with the enjoyment coming from how accurately they could mimic actually being shot combined with the best pithy putdowns. Free Fire is one of the most stupidly enjoyable films of the year.