“I just want everyone to leave this deal happy”, says Brie Larson’s Justine, famous last words perhaps in Ben Wheatley’s ballsy, ballistic shoot-em-up, Free Fire.
The deal Justine brokered should have gone smoothly. In an abandoned warehouse by the Boston harbour, a delegation from the Irish Republican Army, headed by Cillian Murphy’s Chris and Michael Smiley’s Frank, are meeting a gang of gun-runners, led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a screeching South African who was “misdiagnosed as a child genius, and never got over it”.
Acting as mediator, it’s the job of Ord (Armie Hammer) to keep the peace in an environment saturated with arrogant, alpha-male impudence: his charm is easy, his jokes casual, and his small talk slight. Once it’s discovered, however, that Vernon has accidently brought the wrong weapons to the meet, it looks as if Ord’s efforts may well be in vain.
Wheatley has long since proved himself to be skilled at the slow burn, and here he relishes in building tension gradually – the warehouse a pressure cooker, waiting to explode. And when it does, at around the 30-minute mark, the scene immediately descends into one of all out anarchy that’s scored by an orchestral harmony of hellfire.Working from a script he collaborated on, as always, with his writing/editing partner Amy Jump, Wheatley relentlessly riffs on the genre, taking his inspiration from the likes of Tarantino, Peckinpah, and Scorsese – the latter of whom acts as an executive producer. More than that though, this is a blood-soaked love letter to the high-octane B-movies of yesteryear; with scuzzy visuals, 70s swag – all shoulder pads and paisley patterns – and even John Denver on the soundtrack.
Free Fire is almost certainly Wheatley’s most superficial film to date – once the first shot is fired, it is effectively nothing but a crowd-pleasing carnival of carnage, with the two sides doing nothing except exchange bullets and zingers respectively in a desperate bid to escape with the loot – but it’s also, arguably, his most consistent: the director committing to convention and retaining a kinetic and lively energy until the eventual ceasefire.
Given the formidable arsenal of talent, it’s perhaps something of a waste to see them all take on stock roles, yet each succeeds in injecting their characters with amusing eccentricities – Sharlto Copley effortlessly stealing the show as the yawping Vernon.
That the tone is so light does detract from the intensity, and it’s probably fair to say that those who are fans of Wheatley’s weirder works will find themselves frustrated by this film’s plain simplicity. But with so many bangs for your buck, it’s impossible not to walk away from this deal happy, just as Justine hoped you would.