Thank goodness Ben Wheatley doesn't care about appealing to mainstream audiences, otherwise a movie like Free Fire would have been very different. It would have been Smokin' Aces rather than the pure pulp B-movie awesomeness that it is. To be honest, I've found most of Wheatley's movies, such as Kill List, Sightseers, and the badly overhyped High-Rise, to be more interesting than actually good, despite their popular status among cinephiles. Free Fire is the first that puts Wheatley's twisted, ironic sensibility into a purely entertaining package, and in doing so it might find him getting that wider appeal, after all.
Free Fire is 90 incredible minutes of bullets, one-liners, and seriously off-the-wall characters. Some of them you'll love to hate, like Sharlto Copley's irritating loud-mouthed wuss of an arms dealer, Vernon. Others you'll just hate to love, like Armie Hammer's perfectly-suited, perfectly-bearded, gentlemanly middleman, Ord, who helps orchestrate a weapons deal among a ragtag group of lowlifes in 1970s Boston. There's Chris (Cillian Murphy), a member of the IRA looking to score a cache of M-16s from Vernon, but he's understandably pissed when he gets a crate full of AR-17s. It wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't already tension thick enough to cut through. Chris has serious doubts about Justine (Brie Larson), who he thinks is a Fed despite her putting all of this together. Plus there's internal beef between Frank (Michael Smiley) and Stevo (Sam Riley), because the latter is a screwup of epic proportions whose unhinged antics will soon escalate an already volatile situation. Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Babou Ceesay round out a cast that is among Wheatley's best, and all get a moment or two or three that really shine.
This is a movie where diplomacy is mostly a façade. There is no honor among a group of thieves like this, and the civility they attempt to show melts away over a beef between two of the background henchmen. It's just proof that they were basically waiting for this powder keg to set off so they could shed their skins and reveal their true selves. Wheatley has loved approaching this idea in his previous movies, that of people showing who they really are when adversity strikes. In this case, every man and woman fancies themselves to be a gunslingin' badass boss. But in reality they are The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Literally, every person has a gun in this merry go'round of chaos and they all suck, which is made all the more hilarious when people start getting winged by bullets, or set aflame by an accidental shot, or run over by pure happenstance.
Wheatley revels in the hilarity and blood and violence, taking some stylistic cues from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs to the westerns of Peckinpah and Ford without being slavish to any of them. He's a filmmaker that defies easy explanation or categorization, except to say that all of his movies feel "off" in the best possibly way, meaning they are always unpredictable. Free Fire is as straight-forward as they come and yet you still have no idea how this crazy shootout is going to go. To Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump's credit, they keep this training moving briskly enough that being stuck in essentially one location with the same group of characters (even the warehouse they're in could count as one) never gets dull or confusing. Of course it helps that every actor seems to be having way too good of a time filling out roles that demand they crank the volume up to eleven.
Perhaps the best thing about Free Fire is that its aspirations are simple. It isn't looking for any awards, but accolades are sure to come. This is just a flat out damn good time at the movies, and we'd all be a lot better off in more could be as fun as Free Fire.
Rating: 4 out of 5