In 1970s Boston, an arms trade is set up between IRA footmen and a South African livewire; it goes bad and a gunfight ensues. What might act as the opening gambit in a Scorcese epic, or the finale of a Francis Ford Coppola classic, is writer-director Ben Wheatley’s beginning, middle and end – a tense and coy pleasure to watch.
Introduced to each other by Justine (Brie Larson), the deal is brokered between Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) from the IRA and the erratic Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Armie Hammer plays the pseudo-sophisticate Ord, there to keep things smooth, while small-time thugs are present for each side. The inter-relationships are surprisingly complex in theory, but Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s intention is to keep things messily traceable, and so it proves. When the deal quickly goes south, we as viewers are suddenly and refreshingly required to keep multiple running tallies going – who begrudges who, who is wounded how, where a briefcase is, where each character is lying, who has a hold of what weapon.
The overwhelming majority of Free Fire is set in one abandoned warehouse, and this cavernous space and its surrounding halls become a floor-map to be visualised as characters are wounded, stranded and cornered in turn; and no character is exempt. These nonplussed foot soldiers take bullets in arms, legs, guts, shoulders, all without quick and easy cinema deaths; they bleed slowly, they become light-headed, and more than anything they cannot shoot straight. The length of this firefight is at least partly down to the sheer lack of marksmanship on show, whether due to laziness, inebriation or concrete dust showered in the eyes.
Through this chaos, and relentlessly searing dialogue, Jump and Wheatley repeatedly deliver standout moments of comedy; most characters are capable of both witty retorts and straight-man reaction shots, further adding to the feeling that they are all at once archetypes and idiots, flailing around each other. However it is perhaps the physical comedy that is at once the most gruelling and unique; after a few shots are taken, we start to feel each impact less and less – a shot in the shoulder is suddenly able to be the punchline to a momentary physical absurdism, as well as a shuddering stress-impact. Of course, Wheatley plays with this false sense of security, especially in the increasingly horrifying final segments.
Free Fire is a gem of a concept movie, a simple but not simplistic reflection on our relationship with onscreen violence, as well as a send-up of cinematic tropes of yore. As we initially remind ourselves of the human body’s at times incredible resilience, Wheatley is sure to slam us back down to earth with gorey and amusing rebuttals. Unpredictability counts for much in the modern cinema, and Wheatley’s films are becoming bastions of innovation and the darkest of humour.