Free Fire (2017).
Director: Ben Wheatley (A Field in England, High-Rise).
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor.
12 angry men and a woman suddenly find themselves in the middle of a free fire. It sounds like a lot of characters to keep count of, but Wheatley, together with fellow screenplay writer Amy Jump, manage to establish relationships, teams, and loyalty in a relatively short time. Almost every character is given a distinct personality, making it easy to follow who is shooting who and why. Whether it’s the no-nonsense Frank, the charismatic Ord, or the exaggerated Vernon, each person is a delight to watch and follow on their journey.
That journey is not only filled with a large number of bullets, but also some sharp shooting dialogue from each person holding a firearm. For every reload, there’s a response waiting to be quipped from someone waiting to get their shot in. “I’m not driving a fucking pizza delivery service!” shouts Vernon after Chris realises the weapons he’s ordered aren’t present.
Wheatley and Jump manage to create boundless amounts of tension between the two sides, even before the first bullet is fire. We find out that the hired muscle from each group had met one another the night before, which resulted in an altercation.
This is the catalyst which sets in motion the rest of the film. Cinematographer Laurie Rose favours close-ups and a camera positioned as close to the floor as possible, to match the position of the characters as they hide from incoming fire. He moves actors and the film around waist-high barriers, dust from the factory floor, and endless amounts of rubble.
Wheatley also prefers to keep his characters alive for as long as possible. Gunshots aren’t an instant kill. Instead, we get to see characters suffer from their injuries and slowly crawl to their demise. This allows for further altercations, more drama, and more importantly more hilarious back-and-forths between the Irishmen and the gunrunners.
By the third act, everyone’s crawling along the rubble-filled, dust-covered floor, trying to survive from their gunshot wounds. What started off as a rapid shoot-out has wound down to a battle of wits. There’s a brief intermission in the middle of the free for all, where the characters ceasefire for a minute and contemplate cutting their losses and getting out. But soon enough, the ear-piercing noise of a bullet sends everyone back into a frenzy, and the copious amounts of blood spilled begins to catch up with everyone who’s been hurt.
These guns are noisy, extremely noisy. The pop and burst of each bullet from its chamber is enthralling and feels visceral. The gunplay throughout the film is sublime, and the sound effects that accompany each gun makes each encounter all the more fun to watch, especially as the fight lasts just over the hour mark.
Keeping it consistent is some much-appreciated quality editing, flowing from one side to the other, helping the audience keep track of who is shooting who and which bullets are going where. Only a few times in this sixty-minute outburst does the film lose track of which direction the bullets are flying in.
Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 thriller classic Reservoir Dogs will be made, and for the most part, Wheatley’s film hits its target. It’s fast, it’s funky, but most important, it’s fun to watch.