Quentin Tarantino meets Sam Peckinpah in this hilarious, violent story about an arms deal gone wrong.
If director Ben Wheatley has proven anything with his career up until this point, it’s that he doesn’t ever feel the need to cater his films to any kind of wide demographic. As a result, his films have been welcomed with a large range of reactions, both positive and negative, and never not divisive. But surprisingly enough, with his latest film, Free Fire, Wheatley has made arguably his most accessible project to date, though that’s not saying much when his previous titles include movies like A Field in England, High-Rise, and Kill List.
Set in Boston in 1978, Free Fire tells the story of an Irish gang and an arms dealer meeting up in an abandoned warehouse to make a trade. Specifically, it’s about what happens when hurt egos and false apologies cause things to go south rather quickly, as everyone involved begins shooting at each other, and the odds of making it out of the building alive gradually decrease throughout the night. In spite of that, and as opposed to just delivering a tense and by-the-numbers shootout action film, Wheatley turns the premise of Free Fire on its head, populating the warehouse with an assorted bag of idiots and weirdos, forcing them to crawl around the warehouse through dust and broken glass, randomly shooting their guns at whoever they see near them.
Free Fire is a black comedy adrenaline trip, one that’s just as much a situational comedy as it is a guns-blazing, isolated, action film. People die, yes, in gruesome and unfortunate ways, and yet there’s also times when someone will randomly shout that they’ve forgotten what side they’re on. Wheatley evens out all of the mayhem with moments like these, cutting suddenly to one of them calmly lighting a joint to calm himself down, and later accusing the others of being “cheaters” when a third party of snipers get involved. This is a strange sandbox of characters that Wheatley has assembled, and you’ll almost feel bad about how much fun you’ll have watching him torture them for almost 90 minutes straight.
The prospect of watching a dozen actors, both well-known and not, crawl around on the ground for that long of a time might sound like it makes for an exhausting experience, but Free Fire is the exact opposite. That’s mostly due to not only Wheatley’s energized direction and editing, but also how clear it is that every single one of those actors is having the best time of their lives. I honestly can’t envision what it was like reading the script for Free Fire, although I imagine Wheatley made sure it was clear on the page what all involved would be getting themselves into.
Fortunately for the filmmaker, the voluntary participants wound up being a wide assortment of some of the best actors working today, all of whom give their most fun performances to date. Particularly, Sharlto Copley manages to elicit 70% of the laughs himself, by over-exaggerating the high-pitched nature of his South African accent, so that his Vern, a vain and self-deluded arms dealer, is almost constantly screaming – even when the situation doesn’t call for it. Multiple times throughout, even when another set of actors are on screen, Wheatley somehow manages to let Copley’s dialogue play out in the background to often hilarious results.
The same can be said for Armie Hammer, who continues his recent hot streak with what could go down as his best performance to date. His character, Ord, is Wheatley’s version of the typical stone cold, professional hit man for hire. What that means is that while clearly being the most skilled fighter in the warehouse, Ord spends most of his time criticizing the form of the others, and taking great joy out of shutting the other players down just when they think they’re starting to get the upper hand.
Wheatley employs that tactic for a majority of the film, usually letting one of the characters build up their confidence, before always (and sometimes literally) cutting them off at the kneecaps. Not only does it allow Wheatley to drag out the intensity of the shootout for as long as possible – it causes it to be practically impossible to predict what will happen next. He’s made a messy, chaotic film, yet one that always feels controlled. As a viewer, you’ll never get the sense that he’s losing his grip on the film’s tone, characters, or pacing, and it makes for yet another delightfully strange addition to his filmography.
Funnily enough, the only filmmaker who Wheatley legitimately seems to resemble is Jim Jarmusch, though not because of their styles, taste, or material. Instead, the latter has managed to make a career for himself by only doing the kinds of films he wants to do, exactly how he wants to do them, resulting in an array of wildly different, critically-acclaimed titles like Paterson, Ghost Dog, and more. So if Wheatley continues to make films the way he has been so far, he may well enter into a very similar category of one-of-a-kind filmmakers like Jarmusch in the coming years.