A dingy warehouse in the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem like the most obvious place for an action-thriller shootout, or even the most ambitious setting for a film. Yet although Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire barely leaves the four walls of this abandoned building, his inventive story, brilliant cast of characters and superb direction has resulted in a riotous, exhilarating film that is a joy to watch from start to finish, even if you’ll sometimes be doing so from between your fingers.
Set in the 1970s, Free Fire takes place on one night in Boston, a group of nefarious individuals meeting up for a gun deal in said warehouse. Some are there because they’ve been ordered to, some are there to keep everything flowing smoothly – but all of them are there for profit. Tensions are high from the get-go, with an incorrect order, unreliable associates, and general ego boasting keeping them and us on our toes. Things are bound to go awry. And soon it’s shoot first, ask questions later, each trying to save themselves from becoming a moving target. “I forgot whose side I’m on!” screams a reluctant accomplice at one point, a line that perfectly and hilariously sums up the madness they all suddenly find themselves in. Question is: do the ‘sides’ even exist anymore?
Free Fire is slow to build up to this anarchy during the first part of the film, however once it gets there it is tackled with reckless abandon by the director, bullets ricocheting off the walls, dust flying and blood spurting. Each gun fight is choreographed down to the minutest detail, Wheatley keen to not only maintain the plausibility of the action, but also to keep us hooked with the relentlessness of it all. The exquisite, realistic sound design is such that we feel every bullet whizzing past their heads and every walloping impact, Wheatley putting us at the heart of everything and leaving us shaking as much as his ten put-upon main characters. Couple this with his inventive direction and the result is some truly gripping action sequences – a surprising achievement for a film that barely leaves the one room.
What is also surprising about this aspect of Free Fire is that it often results in some unexpected darkly humorous moments, a signature element in all of Wheatley’s films. Characters throw themselves around in an almost slapstick (yet hilarious) way sometimes, trying to use any method they can to make it to cover intact, whether that be hobbling along behind a moving object, or trying to persuade somebody else to do their dirty work for them. While a lot of Free Fire’s comedy comes from the ridiculousness of the situation, it also stems from the idiocy of these hapless characters, who are larger-than-life often to the point of caricature, but still utterly believable. Great characterisation from writer Amy Jump and Wheatley (who co-wrote) helps achieve this, as do the superb performances from the stellar cast, each of them fleshing out these brilliant creations and clearly revelling in every second. Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor and Brie Larson are all standouts in a sea of excellent roles (with Larson adding some much needed gravitas to the OTT of it all). However both Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley steal nearly every scene they appear in, Hammer a dapper, suave professional with a touch of the psychotic about him, and Copley a South African arms dealer with a swagger to match his overly expensive suit – a bravado that is soon proven to be false when it’s him versus everyone else.
With the laughs and endlessly quotable lines piling up as much as the lies and bullet casings, Jump and Wheatley’s perfect pacing ensures we are nothing short of engrossed throughout, with even the quiet moments of their narrative hinting at a wealth of character backstory and things left unsaid; something that deliciously comes together at the end. Along with the slick action, outstanding performances, thrilling direction and exquisite cinematography (from the ever brilliant Laurie Rose), you’ll forget all about that one location setting and simply lose yourself in Free Fire’s rampant, raucous world. And although the American backdrop and well-known cast make this Wheatley’s most mainstream film so far, this is absolutely up there with his best, a particular standout due to its pitch-perfect humour, which makes it well worth multiple viewings.
Free Fire opens nationwide across the UK on 31st March.