We’re over-familiar with Godard’s maxim of girls and guns, but director Ben Wheatley has clearly taken the simplicity of that Godardian ideal to heart with Free Fire. After the over-extended mania of High-Rise, here’s a film that gets right back to basics. The plot setup couldn’t be much simpler: a group of people meet to trade some guns, disagreements erupt and gunpowder-infused chaos ensues. Just when you think the age of high concepts has yielded to franchise formula, along comes the explosive Free Fire to remind you of the inherent fun to be found in such enterprises, while never sacrificing skill or craft.
To flesh out the premise just a little, the film opens with introductions. Late one night in 1977, an assembly forms outside an abandoned Boston warehouse. Among them are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), over from Ireland to procure M-16 rifles. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) are there to sell them. Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) are there to oversee the deal. And Harry (Jack Reynor), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley) are the wild card lunks who will screw it all up and set all guns blazing. Character-wise, Wheatley and Amy Jump’s script gives each just enough definition to allow each actor to put their own stamp on their roles. Larson and Smiley are likeable and no-nonsense, Hammer is several shades of suave, and Reynor and Riley are brilliantly slimy (The latter seems to generate a lot of sweat just from chewing on the Bahh-stahn accent). Crouching behind makeshift trenches and shields, the cast fire off bullets and bon mots, as the dialogue offers each person opportunities to steal the show, from Smiley’s world-weariness to Copley’s accented apoplexy (That being said, on first watch, Hammer’s cockiness wins it by a nose). So many lines offer pearls of profanity and insults, though the most poignant is when all kinds of stuff stars hitting the fan and Justine yells out “Nobody do anything!” That may well be the main takeaway from Free Fire; when you have a gun in your hand, you feel horribly compelled to use it.
The only aspect with more sparks than the cast chemistry is the pyrotechnics. Wheatley and his crew riddle this warehouse (and everyone in it) with dusty, bloody squibs. Post-introductions, a good 30 minutes of shooting, ducking, dodging, yelling and bickering ensues, and it all unfolds with an energy that can’t but leave you chuckling. The comedy of the whole endeavour may have only occurred to Wheatley as the film went into production, but it’s the wisest way to get through a 90-minute hoo-ha in which every surface (and some people) are made to resemble Swiss cheese. The sarcastic portrait of the dangers of men with itchy trigger fingers is redolent of the early works of executive producer Martin Scorsese. Once upon a time, he was another give-no-fucks Young Turk, who pushed buttons with the violence of Johnny Boy and Travis Bickle. Free Fire doesn’t have the profundity of Scorsese (either past or present), but then that’s not its intention. DoP Laurie Rose’s orange-lit palette might emulate those films, but this is a brilliantly fiery adult entertainment first and foremost. Amongst a sterling production, special mention must go to the set design, creating a believable battlefield out of pillars and vehicles, and to the edit (mostly constructed by Wheatley himself on-set), which ensures no character is ever lost in the crossfire. Just as high concepts are an apparently-rare commodity, so too is coherence, but that’s not an issue here.
Bar a welcome pause midway through proceedings, Free Fire’s pace rarely lets up. The propulsive energy at the film’s core is its defining trait. There may not be much of a moral compass or purpose to dwell on, but then it is a film about a bunch of mooks shooting at each other, pure and simple. For ninety minutes, it’s near pitch-perfect chaos, sharp, salty and mercilessly efficient.
Free Fire closes the 60th BFI London Film Festival tonight (16th October), and opens in the UK and Ireland on 31st March 2017.