It's hard to miss Free Fire's audacious marketing campaign at the moment. Most tube stations are peppered with retro multi-coloured mugshots of each cast member, each fixed with a target firmly planted about their person destined to blow them to oblivion. It's gaudy, it's tacky and it's bloody brilliant. Director Ben Wheatley is best known for his darkly comic and deeply troubling visions of the world. He's responsible for arguably the creepiest moment in recent cinema history (Field In England - Reece Shearsmith on a rope scene). The surreal concept behind High Rise was not the success Wheatley was hoping for and so 'Reservoir Dogs on smack' seems the natural next step. Wheatley and his cast of (many) merry men play out the simplest of concepts. One warehouse, two gangs, several crates full of guns.
After the first few establishing minutes the confines of the dilapidated warehouse take over as the setting for the rest of the film. We are introduced to a cast of quirky characters initiating a drug deal. Despite the laughs, and there are plenty in this film, there is a palpable tension in the air as we anticipate the inevitability of the deal going south and the bullets beginning to fly. And Jesus Christ, when the shooting starts it don’t stop 'till there's no more blood left to shed.
There's guns pointed at you from in front, guns pointed at you from behind, guns pointed up at you, guns pointed down at you, bullets clipping you, bullets whistling past you, bullets ricocheting off metalwork, bullets tearing the shoulder padding of your suit, bullets blowing your brains out of the back of your skull. There's literally thousands of bullets fired within the confines of this tiny warehouse. The sound of their metallic casings echoing off the floor or the warehouse becomes such a part of the soundtrack it's incredibly noticeable when it stops. Bodies drop like flies. Blood stains the concrete. Skulls explode. Jaws are pierced with crowbars. Fuck me, it is glorious. As the gang is scattered across the warehouse it actually becomes quite hard to work out who is firing at who and where everyone is in relation to everyone else. But that's OK - in fact it's exactly what you want. You feel as disorientated as they do as they seek clarification on who is still alive, who is on whose side and who shot who.
The driving force of the film comes mainly from the question as to who will be the last one standing. More to the point, who do you want to be the last one standing? It's quite hard to say because more or less they all have something to like despite being fairly repugnant characters all round. South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the comic relief and without doubt the main reason this film works so well. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are the non-nonsense Irish who are here to buy his guns. The whole deal has been set up by middle-woman Justine (Brie Larson). Her involvement is hardly going to pass the Bechdel test and will do nothing to shake the idea loose that the film is all about the male gaze. In a cast of ten, males make up exactly 90% of the crew. That being said she more than holds her own and comes across as a strong and determined character that is never once the object of sexualisation. On that point, despite the reliance on guns and ammo in this film to propel the story along, there is little to no gun porn. The guns are not treated as objects of beauty or macho symbols. They are simply handheld pieces of metal that dish out death.
As enjoyable as it is Free Fire is by no means perfect. There is a 20 minute section towards the end of the film that dragged and began feeling a bit samey and dull. It's a trapping of setting a film in one location I suppose but with a running time of just 90 minutes you can’t allow for a significant lapse in storytelling time like that. Also unfortunate was the utter brilliance but subsequent mistreatment of Sharlto Copley's character. With the lion’s share of laughs in the film he's a pleasure to watch on screen but the more we see of him the more it feels like the guy with the funny accent getting the laughs in. Overall he steals the show but less is definitely more Mr. Wheatley. Some may see this as a criticism, but actually I think it works to his credit – Free Fire is a lot more surface and less about hidden meanings than other Wheatley films. For this reason I actually found it to be his most enjoyable and definitely most accessible film.
Sometimes in cinema you simply want to be entertained and not made to think too hard. Wheatley has absolutely smashed the nail on the head with this one as not only does he entertain, he does it in such a way that does not pander to the lowest common denominator. This is a completely serious film, ridiculously over the top and insanely manic in its energy. It feels like you’ve seen it all before and you may have. But it’s never been this loud or this memorable.
EXTRAS: There's an Audio Commentary with writer/director Ben Wheatley, and stars Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor; and the featurette The Making of Free Fire (15:58), which includes interviews with the cast.