Gunshots are to Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire what drumbeats were to Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman, which is to say that they are both omnipresent and absorbingly hypnotic. Easing any psychological narrative in favour of the wildly entertaining effects of sensation cinema, Wheatley may not plumb the thought-provoking depths of Iñárittu but his is an equally exhilarating ride.
Existent on the barest of possible plot bones, the film takes place in the frame of a 1970s set, warehouse arms deal, with Bernie and the shifty – to say the least – and drugged up Stevo (Enzo Clienti and Sam Riley) driving in to meet IRA men Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley), along with an intermediary, Justine (Brie Larson), and their exchange representative (Armie Hammer) before being led to the South African, then Rhodesian, dealer himself: Vernon (Sharlto Copley, loving the role) and his gang of associates (Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor). If that feels like the extended set up to a set-piece, it’s because it is exactly the extended set up for a set-piece, with each character a pawn readied for play. Though testosterone tempered tension is tangible from the tee, things really go awry when…well that would be telling. From the ensuing brawl on, Wheatley, along with co-writer and editor Amy Jump (his spouse and writing associate on all but one of his directorial back catalogue), presses on with delivering a ramped up melee of unadulterated bullet ballet.
Though, by necessity, quickly sketched (‘You know what, f**k the small talk, let’s buy some guns okay’) each of Wheatley and Jump’s characters do manage to unanimously attain a feeling of being well rounded in their realisation. Sure, the males may all find themselves vying for their share of the ‘alpha’ status, and bearing all the insecurities that lie behind such yearning (‘Vernon was misdiagnosed as a child genius and he never got over it’ says Justine), but at no point do they present as interchangeable. Hammer has never channelled John Hamm moreso than as the effortlessly cool Ord, Riley gives his all to dandy results in a weaselly role, and Murphy continues to be a highly magnetic screen presence. As the only woman before the lens, Larson is equally engaging, shining in the role of a character rising above ’70s sexism without ever feeling too polished and unsullied herself. Her line ‘We can’t all be nice girls’ will without a doubt gain cult status.
Characterised individuality is absolutely key to the ambition here. In discussions of Free Fire, which premiered at Toronto last September, Wheatley has emphasised that the original intention of the production was to create a shootout more real than the fantastical ones in the common action romp. As such, the film places itself on the scale of Snyder to Tarantino somewhat closer to the latter, capturing viscerality, mercifully without Quentin’s exploitation. Each gun shot is aurally unique, each captured at earsplitting volume, and each resulting in genuinely painful ramifications. I can’t think of a film before now to have provoked quite so many reflexive blinks.
When not wholly submerged by its cacophonic bullet blizzard, Free Fire‘s soundtrack similarly plays in the territory of Tarantino (his Reservoir Dogs provides an obvious comparison too), capturing a retro-cum-vintage vibe whilst paying surprising but effective dues to John Denver. ‘Annie’s Song’ may never be the same again. A quirk of the production process saw Wheatley and Jump ditch the use of a ‘temp soundtrack’ (matching music fill-ins to be replaced after editing) in favour of giving composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow greater autonomy over tonal choices. The result, very much appropriately, is indeed a score carrying a free jazz flavour in its spontaneity.
Given the nature of its pared down plotting, it was perhaps inevitable that Free Fire does have slacker moments in its relatively short runtime, if never totally at the expensive entertainment. That said, the film is a far from loose feature, delivering tight action with spotless editing and a script peppered with a consistent rhythm of laughs. That the film for the most part takes place entirely within the space of its single isolated location, that of the abandoned factory, evidences too the sheer skill of the choreography on screen.
Playing for thrills rather than tension – which here would have probably been unbearable anyway – the whole thing ultimately builds to a denouement and final note enough to send audiences away on the most terrific of (non-drug-induced) highs. Free Fire is perhaps best summed up by its concluding shot, more Laurel and Hardy than Truffaut, and there’s only one way for you to find out what that is.