We’re all familiar with the typical climax of a crime film. After a long period of build up, with animosity slowly growing between two or three criminal rings, everything combusts into the entire cast riddling each other with gunfire. If we’ve had a good time along the way, this brutality is incredibly satisfying. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire poses a fascinating question. Can this climatic blowout carry an entire film on its own?
The story takes place in 1970s Boston, observing a arms deal go down in an abandoned warehouse. The buyers are a group of Irish Mobsters lead by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) and the sellers are a guild of collected businessmen headed up by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer). In the middle of everything is Justine (Brie Larson), the intermediary who is being leered at by both sides. Eventually, the tension and toxic machismo bubbles to the point of violence and thus begins an extended firefight that takes up the majority of the run time.
Ironically enough, the proceedings are at their most compelling before the bullets start flying. The screenplay, written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, does a fantastic job of economically establishing who these people are. We learn so much by simply watching how each one handles the tension and anxiety around them. Some of them lead with volatility and anger, others with common sense and a few with flat out insanity. It’s a fantastic first act that plays like a fusion between the ticking time bomb sequences of Quentin Tarantino and the harsh dialogue of Martin Mcdonagh (In Bruges).
It certainly helps to have a stacked cast of charismatic actors to keep things moving along. While everybody in the ensemble pulls their weight, the stand-outs are easily Copley and Hammer. Copley is always at his best playing unhinged loons that could explode at any moment and here he’s given a chance to take that to a borderline cartoonish extreme. That could easily come off as over the top in the hands of a lesser actor but Copley makes that hysteria feel utterly natural. Meanwhile, Hammer thrives as the disturbingly caustic Ord. He’s astonishingly collected as if this is just another day on the job to him. The only one who does get a little bit lost in the shuffle is Larson. The objectification that Justine is forced to deal with is a delightfully skeevy element that isn’t played with as much as it could’ve been. As such, she spends most of her screen time simply telling everybody to calm down, with only a couple moments to really stand out on her own.
Wheatley intentionally disorients both his characters and audience through the sheer chaos of it all. As the skirmish rages on and our combatants sustain more critical injuries, we start to loose track of where everybody is and even who’s side certain people are on, which is even acknowledged at one point. Every bullet impact feels painful. We practically get infected ourselves watching the wounded crawl on the ground. While this makes for an extremely visceral experience, it ultimately becomes a little numbing as it goes on. There’s only so long that the novelty of these guys take pot shots at each other lasts before it starts to get repetitive.
Free Fire is essentially an ultra-violent stage play, a powder keg that revels more in the explosion then the burning fuse. It gleefully gathers a group of dynamic performers and challenges them to develop their characters through action and reaction. However, it ultimately feels like the second half of a great movie. If we had been able to spend more time with these characters before they enter the warehouse, the lengthy battle between them would have served as one massive payoff. As it stands, this is a b-movie with a-level talent, craftsmanship in search of a stronger story. That said, it’s certainly an ambitious piece of filmmaking that is well worth locking and loading for.