Near the beginning of Free Fire, when Brie Larson’s character Justine feels a chill in the dilapidated factory meeting point, where things are about to go down. Michael Smiley’s character Frank, a full fledged member of the IRA, shrugs it off saying she should try winters in Hollywood. Armie Hammer’s smooth operator Ord instantly raises an eyebrow and questions him. Are you absurd man? Hollywood, Los Angeles? With all it’s sun kissed expectations? Frank quips back saying how he is referring to the real Hollywood in Northern Ireland as opposed to the fake Hollywood in which movies are made.
No Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. You might want to grab some cover…
Free Fire is the sixth feature film from British director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump. Wheatley has always drawn parallels with Tarantino in so much as his movies are injected with black comedy, and contain scenes of great violence and unease, sometimes played out to a good selection of music. Free Fire has drawn comparisons to Reservoir Dogs in how it involves a bunch of bad guys localised within a derelict space threatening to murder each other. The main difference is that most of the characters in Free Fire are really bad shots, and spend most of the movie taunting and bickering with one another like school children behind what little cover is available to them.
A bit like the Internet then.
The movie takes place in the 70s in Boston, where a group of men belonging to the IRA arrange to meet some arms dealers to secure automatic weapons for their war effort back in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles. On the one side you have Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) who meet with Justine (Brie Larson) who has set up a meeting with her contact Ord (Armie Hammer) who is connected to African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his ex-black panthers business partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). After business goes down, a personal conflict erupts between the two parties turning the derelict factory space into a warzone.
Perhaps it is Wheatley’s British sensibilities kicking in but despite it’s action orientated premise, Free Fire is defined by a sense that guns are absolutely terrifying. Gun shots are loud and deafening especially in the hands of unprofessional scumbags. Bullets are fired blindly from behind cover, and as the guns make you flinch, the bullets are more likely to incapacitate rather than kill, leaving their victims to crawl through the dirt dragging their lifeless limbs behind them.
As a kind of direct contrast, within the same week of seeing Free Fire I also saw John Wick: Chapter 2, which definitely provides an interesting double viewing. Hollywood action movies have always had a reputation of having a fetish for guns. John Wick at this current time may be the apex of this trend in cinema. In one scene in John Wick 2, the title character is selecting his firearms like he is choosing courses for an exquisite three course meal. In Free Fire the guns being purchased turn up not be the guns originally ordered – they still shrug it off because any automatic weapon is going to kill many effectively. Who cares what make it is? Guns are guns.
Whilst John Wick is this extremely tightly choreographed, almost balletic display of action movie combat powered by a machine-like performance from Keanu Reeves. The execution of Free Fire is deliberately rougher around the edges. There are no double taps or bad guys walking into frame only to suddenly take an immaculately placed shot to the head.
Keanu Reeves dedicated months of training to get to the level of performance the character of John Wick required. Handling guns effectively requires this kind of training. None of the characters in Free Fire are to that level, but that’s the point, combat becomes drawn out, their bullets don’t always hit, their bullets don’t always mean to hit, until the point that they actually do.
And when they do, it’s akin to that moment in which that kid threw the rock at the other kid on the playground and it hit him square in the face. The playground goes quiet and the kid who threw the rock suddenly realises the extent of his power. He has gone too far.
The only character who does seem to know how to handle himself is Armie Hammer’s character – a somewhat smarmy entity towering above the rest of the cast in height and skill, with a well groomed beard, turtleneck/jacket combo. He may well be the hero of any other movie, but it’s the rest of the characters who bring him down through their stupidity and their unrelenting objection to let things go. Chief of whom is Sharlto Copley’s crime boss, (“Watch and Vern!”) who once again brings out his trademark mad cap South African schtick to proceedings.
The movie has a really impressive cast. Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor and Sam Riley. Wheatley does that Tarantino thing of endearing you to each of these scumbags but takes moments to shock in how monstrous they actually are. Michael Smiley for example, is intense as Frank, a loyal gun toting member of the IRA, yet somewhat noble in his resolve. When he finds his step brother was involved in glassing a woman, he beats him senseless in a protracted scene that is meant to jar with you and make you wince.
Next to Wheatley’s other films, you can once again see something of a trend. Free Fire is another film in which he confines a bunch of bad guys within a small space. A space where each of them are forced to undergo an escalating gauntlet of pain and suffering resulting in lots of screaming and shouting. At points it does feel as if things are being forcibly prolonged with the amount of bullets that maim it’s cast. However there is still an element of playfulness in it’s presentation summed up by excellent use of John Denver.
Behind it all however, Free Fire walks the tightrope between black comedy and thriller. As the bullets begin to fly, you find yourself picking favourites in amongst the cast. Despite the majority taking grazing shots or bullets to limbs, you know it’s just a matter of time before one of the characters bleeds out or one of those bullets lands properly and takes them down for good. Which creates a great deal of tension towards the end.
On the surface Free Fire cuts a good trailer, it is slightly looser with the comedic interchanges between an impressive star studded cast even though there are more than enough gruesome moments throughout to prove the point that once again ‘violence will be our undoing’.
Underneath the surface Wheatley is once again playing and tinkering with genre and subverting our expectations. Action movies usually have an objective and a destination but there is less of that in Free Fire. It’s almost formless, with it’s characters regressing to a crawling state, as if countering evolution itself and scurrying back to the swirling chaos of the ocean we first trudged out of millions of years ago. See how firearms devolve us!
There are no action movie quips or one liners, there is more banter, characters trying to provoke or impress each other to forge makeshift allegiances. Whatever they say, it is in the end overwhelmed by the sound of frenzied gunfire, which is a more direct language we can understand.
As the bullets begin to fly, it’s impossible not to find yourself picking favourites in amongst the cast. Despite the majority taking grazing shots or bullets to limbs, you know it’s just a matter of time before one of the characters bleeds out or one of those bullets lands properly and takes them down for good.
It’s called Free Fire for a reason. There isn’t much structure or form. In many ways Ben Wheatley has created an anti-action movie. There is a simple premise, a bunch of shady characters clinging to rubble in an old warehouse as chaos rises. The guns bark loudly and hurt plenty. Death is protracted and drawn out and there is no Keanu Reeves to waltz in to save the day and put them all down quickly or at least humanely. Regardless of this, it doesn’t stop Free Fire from being a metric tonne of pulpy excitement.