In crime films, there are professionals and there are idiots. Free Fire is a movie about the idiots. Luckily, director Ben Wheatley (who co-wrote, as usual, with Amy Jump), loves these idiots and makes sure you do too. But they are still a bunch of idiots shooting at each other for 90 minutes.
Plot-wise, that’s all you need to know. Reports of this being just one big shootout exaggerate only in the sense that there’s maybe fifteen minutes of setup before everything falls apart. But once bullets start flying, they don’t stop until the very end. This movie is a madhouse.
While such a premise may initially generate excitement, soon after comes the question of how you make a big-ass shootout entertaining for that long. Wheatley certainly doesn’t try to accomplish it with higher-level action cinematography. The geography of the war zone is never as clear as you want. You rarely have a good idea of who is shooting at whom or where everyone is in relation to each other. This isn’t a John Wick-type action film.
On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter. In fact, it may even be intentional. The inciting incident that starts Free Fire is a personal one that only involves two lower-level thugs. The major players hardly even know why they’re fighting. Some can’t even tell what side they’re on. Confusion reigns in Free Fire, so it makes sense that when it comes to the violence, we’re just as lost as the characters doing the shooting.
But it also doesn’t matter because these characters are just so fun to watch. Everyone does abnormally great work in Free Fire, from the overly nonchalant Armie Hammer to the almost noble Cillian Murphy to the fucked up but lovable Jack Reynor to the capable and quiet Brie Larson, everyone gets to explore a persona we don’t normally see from these actors to great success. Except Sharlto Copley. Sharlto Copley just plays Sharlto Copley, but bigger than ever before. This is without a doubt the ultimate wacky Sharlto Copley role (sorry A-Team fans), and he totally steals the film. That he can do so with all these other wacky assholes around is saying something.
Free Fire has great affection for its characters and endeavors to keep them alive as long as possible. This means a great deal of the film’s violence involves flesh wounds, which adds a lot to the comedy while slowly increasing the stakes in an organic way. This is a long-ass shootout and these people get shot. A lot. And they spend most of the film crawling/limping about, many slowly bleeding to death. But that doesn’t mean Ben Wheatley doesn’t get to indulge his mean streak. Not all deaths in Free Fire come from bullets and there are a couple cheer-worthy bits of gore that help you remember who’s behind the camera.
Ben Wheatley has spent his career defying expectations. Each of his films explore different genres and tones. This is his “fun” film. All he wants to do here is entertain, and Free Fire succeeds wildly at this goal. Its gallows humor party time vibe may not make this a favorite among his more devoted acolytes, but I can’t imagine him making something more attuned to my personal interests. See it in a theater if you can.