In typical action films, when the bullets start to fly, all logic flies out the window. Ammo suddenly becomes infinite, the guns never require reloading and bullet wounds are treated nothing more than mosquito bites. After being forced to experience this so many times, Free Fire comes to save us guns blazing with its practical approach.
Ben Wheatley reunites with longtime writing companion Amy Jump in a bombastic, ballistic period piece called Free Fire. It survives with its quick-fire quips and a surefire series of one-liners let us know that this movie is meant to be ridiculous. The premise alone is enough to warrant sideways glances and shots of skepticism on how such a simple premise will keep our attention for 90 minutes. Their answer is quick wit and even quicker guns to fill the runtime.. There is no profound realizations or philosophical musings to unearth in this film. The gunshot wounds in this film are deeper than any of the content presented, which works well since the comedy is intelligently used as a deflection. The dark comedy is what keeps this bullet-ridden film from dying on screen.
Wheatley has always understood the power of imagery, especially when it comes to films like High-Rise that overcompensate aesthetically because they lack in the narrative. Since 90% of the film takes place in a single abandoned warehouse, the use of space is paramount. Wheatley shows his prowess by transforming what should be a small space into a complete world, although each combatant is probably only several feet away it feels like they are on an expansive battlefield waging trench-like warfare. It is completely immersive and often times disorienting. When the bullets truly let loose, it becomes harder and harder to remember who shot who, when, why or even how. It gets to a point where it doesn’t matter as the situation devolves into a free-for-all with a character at one point exclaiming, “I forgot whose side I’m on!” In the end, it doesn’t matter to the viewer because you’re rooting more for the situation than any single person.
The film spends most of its time battling elements that would otherwise make it boring. After each character has been shot or injured, they each spend the majority of the film on the ground crawling from location to location. The pacing takes a hit, creating a slower pace in between shootout sequences. Luckily, we have the films sound design and sound mixing to keep us entertained. I’m not just talking about the John Denver soundtrack, but the way each specific gun made a noticeably different sound. It adds another layer of excitement to the film letting you not only hear, but feel every piercing punch permeating from every pistol. The entire way the guns are handled in the film keep the film also grounded. Every gunshot is seen and doing a realistic amount of damage to every person. Unlike most action gunfight films, Free Fire makes sure it keeps track of every bullet so that no one seems like they have unlimited ammo.
Every technical element comes together to keep Free Fire engaging and exciting throughout, but it would fall flat without the punchy performances. Part of the fun is watching the characters interact in between bullet shots. Since the film takes place in the 80’s, each character becomes a caricatured cliché that works well within this extraordinary setting. Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley both give the film and exaggerated, fun vibe with their over the top performances, keeping the energy (and humor) ever-present throughout. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy counter them by providing a necessary and natural performance that keeps the film on a steady track while also complimenting the over-dramatic elements. Together, they create a highly combustible and contagious mixture that fuels the film up to the very end.
Free Fire may seem like it sprays bullets indiscriminately but that distraction masks a technically smart film. Every element in the film may appear to be setting the film up for failure, but the risk is rewarded, just as Wheatley knew it would be. With more hits than misses, Wheatley proves to be a marksman of the highest cinematic quality.