The greatest movie shoot-out of all time takes place in Heat. This is known and uncontested. No — shut it. I said, un-con-tested. However, Ben Wheatley seems to have written a celluloid note to Michael Mann which is short and to the point:
Ten minute shootouts are for pussies.
Much love and all the bullets,
To paraphrase the great Ron Swanson, “I’m worried what you just read was ‘A lot of bullets.” What I said was, ‘all the bullets.’ Do you understand?”
Because Sweet Mother of Jesus, Free Fire is almost nothing more than pure shoot-out. Wheatley quickly drops us into 1978 Boston, outside of a warehouse where a gun deal is going down. We meet a few characters, the gun deal quickly goes wrong (as they do), and cue the bullets. That’s your setup, that’s your exposition. Free Fire runs a tight 90 minutes, and a good 80 of those minutes is shoot-out. To be sure, it’s not a non-stop barrage of bullets for 80 minutes. The hails of bullets come in waves, with moments of respite where characters mainly yell at each other before taking up arms again, with Wheatley essentially conducting a firearms symphony.
Some might argue that Free Fire is barely a movie, in the usual sense. There’s very little in terms of plot beyond the question of “why did this all go to such shit,” a question that the film does not ask the viewer to overly engage in. And while it’s fair to call it little more than a giant action scene, that “little more” is what elevates it. Because, although there is nothing wrong with the exhaustion that comes with a good action film that is relentless (see: The Raid), Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump wisely give their action breathing room, using the reload breaks between the gunfire to establish and build on the characters. And to provide the film with a wicked sense of humor, which mostly comes from a surprising pair of actors, in the form of Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer.
The rest of the cast is great — Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy are who they are, after all — but Copley and Hammer are stand-outs, which may be surprising given how Copley has been an increasingly annoying on-screen presence, while Hammer has largely been on-screen without presence. Copley’s frenetic energy is used to perfection here as the head of one half of this mini-war, a man who might prefer that a bullet go through him than his jacket. And Hammer, as the man brokering the deal, provides a hilarious zen in the middle of the zooming mayhem. Plus, he carries a mighty beard.
For those curious how one massive shootout can last this long, it’s because the film treats most of its characters like normal people. These are two groups of criminals trying to conduct a low-level arms deal. They aren’t each SEAL-level snipers running around in God Mode. They miss. They stumble on reloads. And when they get hit, they actually suffer from those hits (in mostly amusing ways, though there is a little gross-out factor at play). And given Wheatley’s past films, it is unsurprising that Free Fire has a natural style to showing all this that doesn’t quite feel like anything else we’ve seen before, while also clearly being a Ben Wheatley film.
My only criticism of the film is that Wheatley’s direction sometimes leans a little too much towards style and flying around. I found myself often with only a vague understanding of the layout and where the pockets of characters were situated vis-a-vie each other. This does not take away from the ultimate enjoyment of all it, and this is easily Wheatley’s most mainstream-accessible film to date. It’s just the one flaw in what is otherwise a diamond. A diamond buried at the bottom of a mountain of bullet casings.
Free Fire had its world premiere at the 2017 South by Southwest Conference.