Ben Wheatley's 'Free Fire' Is An Explosively Entertaining Feature-Length Shootout [TIFF Review]

The third-act shootout is a staple of a certain kind of film, but in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire it's essentially the entire movie. Against all odds, it works. Wheatley stages a never-ending knock-down-drag-out fight, trapping one woman and about a dozen men in an abandoned warehouse and then inviting us to sit back and watch as the bullets and the jokes ricochet off one another. The result is a furiously entertaining exercise that left me buzzing with energy long after I'd left the theater. 

Free Fire Review

The setup is simple. It's 1978, and a deal has been orchestrated by a group of IRA fighters in need of guns and a group of arms dealers happy to provide them (at a steep cost, of course). All that's left is for the two sides to meet and make the trade. But the mood is uneasy from the get-go. The buyers and the sellers don't exactly trust each other, even within each group there are tensions. Most of the men are hotheads packing heat. Toss in 30 machine guns and a briefcase full of money and it's just a matter of time before something terrible happens. Once it does, Free Fire kicks into high gear and doesn't let up for the next 90 minutes.

The ensemble cast, which includes Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, and Noah Taylor, is uniformly fantastic, and each and every one of them looks like they're delighting in their roles. But there are a few standouts. The chameleonic Brie Larson transforms herself yet again, this time into the steely and slippery role of Justine, the business person who orchestrated the deal. Armie Hammer makes the most of Ord's above-it-all cool and somehow gets even better after Ord is dragged down into the dirt with the rest of them. And Sharlto Copley is perfectly cast as Vernon, the whiny and weaselly arms dealer. Copley's track record has been hit or miss since his breakout role in District 9, but Free Fire suggests he could enjoy a long and fruitful career playing men who just seem to be begging for a punch in the face.

free fire trailerFree Fire has something to say about machismo and its ugly effects: the way it turns every interaction into a pissing contest, the way it puffs up a pissing contest into a bloody battle, the way it positions pride above common sense, decency, or even one's own life. With characters hailing from several different countries, the warehouse shootout becomes a microcosm of global conflict. Again and again, we see characters opt for payback to affronts real or imagined, risking their lives and others' in the process. As the guns keep going off, it becomes difficult to maintain track of who's out to get whom. (And not just for the audience: "I forgot which side I'm on!" a character groans at one point.) Because two men wanted each other dead, many more are left bleeding.

Mostly, though, Free Fire is just interested in having a very good time. Wheatley doesn't hold back on the violence, and the film makes great use of its grimy setting. The dialogue (written by Wheatley and Amy Jump) is a treat to listen to, and the actors tear into it with relish. Some of the best lines are tossed off in the background or even off camera, a power move that suggests Free Fire is so rich in a language it can afford to throw away zingers that might have been the biggest laughs in another film. It helps that there are a lot of excellent actors around to deliver them. Wheatley doesn't give his characters the dignity of good aim, or the mercy of a quick death — these people keep getting shot down only to stagger back up on their hands and knees so they can keep on crawling through the muck. It does get ridiculous after a while, but that's the fun of it.

/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10