Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire gets off to an unpromising start. Two 1970s Boston tough guys, Bernie and Stevo (Enzo Cilenti and Control’s Sam Riley), sit in a van trading 1970s Boston tough guy dialogue that sounds like it’s from a movie far below the eccentrically fun standard set by Wheatley’s previous work. “I see him again, he’s fucking dead.” That sort of thing. Eventually, though, a method to the mundanity reveals itself. Free Fire, though in every noticeable way a conventional crime film narrative, is actually a sort of experiment. Wheatley wants to see if he can take ten larger-than-life character archetypes, throw them into a large room and, starting at the end of the first act, tell a whole story that consists of little more than everyone shooting at each other. Like the gunmen and gunwoman in the movie, he doesn’t always hit his mark. But, by the end of it all, he’s made a lot of entertaining noise.
Bernie and Stevo are drivers for Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), who have bargained with middleman Justine (Brie Larson) to buy a large number of semi-automatic rifles from arms dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). Negotiating on behalf of Vernon and Martin is the slick talking, snappy dressing Ord (Armie Hammer). Delivering the goods in their own van are drivers Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor), counterparts to Bernie and Stevo in more ways than one, as we’ll soon find out. So this motley crew meets up in an abandoned warehouse in the middle of the night to do business. Barbs and insults are traded, and then bullets. And then, for the next hour and change, they’re all hunkered down behind pillars and bits of industrial detritus, each of them doing their best to get out alive, mostly by trying to kill the guys on the other side.
Things get messy. I don’t just mean in terms of bloodshed, though there’s plenty of that. With ten characters crouching down in various parts of a single, massive room, spatial coherence quickly goes out the window. Wheatley, a rigorous director, no doubt understands the layout perfectly himself but he is surprisingly unable to keep it clear to the viewer who is shooting from where and getting shot by whom, exactly.
Luckily, Wheatley gets us through it with gallows humor and zingy dialogue, so much so that Free Fire is nearly as much as a comedy as a crime movie. Most of the jokes are of the darkly physical variety, as the film turns into a feature length version of the “Could everyone stop getting shot?” scene from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As for the funny dialogue, everyone gets their chance to shine but it’s the duo of Hammer as the smart, suave one and Copley as the one who thinks he’s the smart, suave one who earn the most consistent laughs. Who else on Earth but Wheatley and cowriter Amy Jump would write a line like, “You distract them with your badinage and I’ll leave,” and who else on Earth but Copley could sell it?
There are some more serious undertones, though it’s not clear what they add up to. Most notably, the era of the film and the nationality of Smiley and Murphy’s characters hint at IRA involvement. There’s also a mention that Ceesay’s character was a Black Panther.
Free Fire’s somewhat nebulous thematic properties are more intriguing when they’re less overt, though. The conversations shouted over the gunfire manage to touch on subjects from war to politics to sex to art. In this light, the never-ending shootout becomes a metaphor for the stubbornness and attrition of opposing ideologies attempting to negotiate with one another. Wisely, in this regard, Wheatley never instructs us to decide which side of the fight are the good guys and which side the bad. There may be more to chew on in Free Fire than initially meets the eye. But even if you don’t feel like putting in the effort, it’s a blast.