If Quentin Tarantino has taught us anything ( debatable), it’s that restraint is a front for less committed artists to hide behind, separating them from true genius. In other words, if you’re going to all the trouble to make an outrageous, amoral shoot’em- up, you might as well take it all the way. In any event, Ben Wheatley certainly got the memo. His gonzo action epic plays like Reservoir Dumbasses: It dances like no one’s watching, and covers the muddy tarmac in spent bullet casings.
True to the nature of the genre, as little time is spent on setup and back story as possible. In a deserted mid-’ 70s Boston warehouse, a group of gun runners, led by the irrepressible Vernon ( Sharlto Copley), a slick, mustachioed South African with a hideous leisure suit he’s immensely proud of and his
own personal catchphrase (“Watch and Vern”), meet with a group of Irish Republican Army members, led by the crafty Chris ( Cillian Murphy) and his humorless friend, Frank ( Michael Smiley), in a deal brokered by a bearded Californian mysteriously named “Ord” ( Armie Hammer), and a shrewd, comely woman, Justine ( Brie Larson), whose allegiances are unclear.
The exchange is meant to be simple and frictionless, but things don’t start well, when Vernon presents several boxes of a different rifle from what was ordered. Conspiring with his right- hand man, Martin ( Babou Ceesay), Vern intends to sell the original order to the Libyans for a tidier profit. From there, just as the briefcase full of cash is changing hands, things go straight to hell when Harry ( Jack Reynor), one of Vern’s underlings, recognizes Stevo ( Sam Riley), Frank’s scroungy doofus brother- in- law, as the man he’d had an altercation with the night before at a bar. Tempers flare, shots are fired, and suddenly everyone is scrambling to take cover behind chunks of concrete, wooden boxes, and steel support beams. As bullets fly, often into someone’s leg or shoulder, things get even more chaotic when a pair of snipers show up, hired by an unknown member of the group, to try and take everyone else down.
And that, in a nutshell, is the entire film, a sort of bottle episode writ large, where the oft- witty repartee (“I’m not dead; I’m just regrouping.”) is only eclipsed by the amusingly novel ways in which this disparate group of screw- ups tries to off one- another in an attempt to be the last person standing with the briefcase full of cash. Alliances are forged, broken, brokered and shot to pieces, with everyone attempting to double- cross everyone else.
The film opens with overhead shots of Boston at night, as the camera eventually comes to follow the van carrying Frank’s doped- up accomplices, but that’s about as close as we — and the characters — ever get to the
outside world. In this arena, the combatants never get to see the light of day. Once shot, as Ord breezily explains, you are given a “golden hour and a half” before you actually die. The film’s running time? Precisely 90 minutes.
What the movie never stops being, though, is thoroughly amusing, keeping its sardonic humor all the way to the last bullet- ridden corpse left in the sprinkler- soaked mud of the abandoned warehouse floor ( as an extra stab at the soaking survivors, it turns out the warehouse is used to manufacture umbrellas).
Wheatley, who co- wrote the script with longtime collaborator Amy Jump, has created a perfect vehicle for his brand of hyper- violence and hilarious forays (“he was misdiagnosed as a child genius,” Justine says of Vernon, “and he never got over it”), a winning combination if ever there was one. Through the hail of gunfire and brutish hand- to- hand combat, the film never loses its nerve or its merciless sense of humor (“I forgot whose side I’m on,” one thug complains shortly before being dispatched). As fun as some of the characters are, it doesn’t allow you to get terribly attached. Our sympathies might go to Chris, who at least seems like a levelheaded fellow with a purpose in mind beyond making a fast buck, or the beautiful Justine, who appears to be caught in a mess she never intended, but Wheatley treats everybody with the same kind of mirthful cruelty. On this blood- soaked train, nobody gets a free pass, and the ironies abound.
It’s also a veritable showcase of high- gloss actors — including Hammer, Murphy, and Oscar- winner Larson — getting down, dirty, bloodied, and dragging their beaten, bullet- ridden bodies over the grimy floor like battered Roombas. True, there’s not a whole lot of subtlety at work here — other than the amusingly sketched out characters, and even there, their backstories don’t go much further than the night before — but it has no pretensions otherwise. Instead, it’s a turbo- charged bloody romp of facial hair, fat lapels, John Denver songs, and the continuing assault of bullets flying like Texas hail in all directions.
Justine ( Brie Larson) is a trigger- happy woman with mysterious motives in Ben Wheatley’s hyperviolent shoot’em- up Free Fire.
Ord ( Armie Hammer), Justine ( Brie Larson), Chris ( Cillian Murphy), Stevo ( Sam Riley) and Frank ( Michael Smiley) shoot fi rst and ask very few questions in the bullet- ridden action comedy Free Fire.