The details don’t really matter, but if you can keep up with who is where in this giant Boston warehouse and who is shooting at who, well that only makes it more fun. But in truth, director and co-writer (with wife Amy Jump) Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE is a 90-minute gun battle, largely in a single location with a handful of very amusing and interesting characters, and somehow he not only makes the film entertaining but he makes us truly care about who lives (assuming anyone is left living at the end) or dies.
Set circa 1978, the film is the story of a group of IRA types (led by Cillian Murphy) buying guns to take back home from a couple of Americans (Armie Hammer and Brie Larson) and a wacky South African (Sharlto Copley, naturally). It turns out that one underling from each side of the deal had a run-in the night before, and this triggers an all-out shootout of enormous proportions, but strangely enough, while the bullets are flying and people are getting hit occasionally, no one dies initially, which actually makes the entire experience all the more painful to watch. There’s a great deal of blood and screaming and more shooting; people are openly mocked for getting shot but not dying; and the entire evening turns into an exercise in barely controlled chaos and surreal behavior.
Wheatley is certainly capable of more thought-provoking and analytical takes on violent individuals and what motivates people to commit terrible acts (in such works as DOWN TERRACE, KILL LIST, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, and last year’s HIGH-RISE), but he’s also the man who made the more to-the-point SIGHTSEERS, and FREE FIRE might be his most free-spirited and accessible entry yet. The funniest things about the scenario is how many times people try to stop the fighting, only to have things kick started and made worse just as things calm down.
Supporting players such as Jack Reynor (SING STREET), Noah Taylor (ALMOST FAMOUS), Sam Riley (CONTROL) and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley are all just naturally funny people, and their pain makes us happy for some reason because the writers give us just enough information about each character to make them something resembling real people and not just moving targets.
I’m sure that buried deep in the guts of FREE FIRE are messages about class, sexism (Larson takes a fair amount of verbal abuse from Copley, partly by design), and gun culture, but really Wheatley just wants you to sit back, perhaps plug your ears, and enjoy 90 minutes of lunatic behavior, punctuated by a great deal of dark humor and a sharp-as-glass ending. I love this version of Wheatley, whose primary concern is entertainment, but I’ll happily switch my brain back on for whatever he has in store next.