British director Ben Wheatley has made a career of drenching black comedy in blood, highlighting the worst of humanity’s impulses while mining them for laughs. He’s also become a master of the single-setting story; his previous film, High-Rise, took place in a single (CGI-built) tower, and focused on a class war between the bourgeois and the ultra-rich. It took a while to build up to the violence there, but with Free Fire, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, he gets to the bloodshed pronto.
Free Fire also takes place in, more or less, a single location: A big rundown warehouse on the Boston Harbor, where two groups of idiots meet to make an arms deal. The customers in the ‘70s-set film include Irish rebel Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), Justine (Brie Larson), and Stevo (Sam Riley); on the other end are Vernon (Sharlto Copley), Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Ord (Armie Hammer), who brokered the deal. Vernon offers up the wrong guns, which pisses off Chris, but it looks like the deal is still going to get done – until Harry recognizes Stevo as the guy who assaulted his cousin the night before.
At that point, shit goes haywire — Harry already slugged Stevo, but he wants considerably more revenge, since his cousin is now in the hospital. And Stevo, a gleeful southie smack head played convincingly by British actor Sam Riley, is absolutely unwilling to concede anything, even after Chris and Frank beat the hell out of him as a gesture of good faith. When Stevo continues to talk shit out of his bloody mouth, Harry gets out his gun, and that’s when everything goes to hell.
Outside of Chris and Justine, each and every character is absolutely ludicrous, in the best way possible. Copley’s Verne is a vain wannabe playboy who worries about getting gun powder on his suit (which soon becomes the least of the contaminants on the Saville Row outfit), Hammer’s Ord is a smooth-talking pothead, Reynor’s Harry is a hot-tempered Boston townie, and Martin takes so many bullets he can’t remember what he’s doing there.
The rest of the movie is one long battle, as hilarious for the audience as it is unnecessary for the combatants. There’s no real reason for anyone to be shooting one another, except for loyalty to their idiotic friends and employees — neither Stevo or Harry are even crucial to the operation, as they’re simply lame hired muscle. Both bullets and jokes fly at a rapid clip, though the latter connect far more often; there is constant bickering and a lot of profoundly stupid decisions made throughout the course of bloody events. It’s like a shaggier version of Reservoir Dogs, filled with morons who would get confused by Tarantino’s vocabulary.
A more thorough, serious reading of the film might find that Free Fire is a scathing critique of American gun culture, where weapons flow freely to people with slow brains and quick trigger fingers. And Wheatley is too smart a filmmaker to not be delivering an underlying message; his jet black comedy filmography also includes Sightseers, a bloody romp through the English countryside by an angry couple cutting up posh assholes.
Then again, you don’t need to gaze too deep into Free Fire to enjoy the insanity, though if you wind up picking a side to root for, the joke’s on you.