Words by Patrick Dunham, Photo courtesy of LFF
In 90 minutes, hundreds of shots are fired, dozens of bullet wounds are inflicted, and constant havoc is wrecked in a former umbrella factory. Yet it is surprising that director Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire” is equal parts comedy and action.
Wheatley is known for his auteurist sensibilities and fearless adherence to his vision, no matter the ensuing madness. In his latest feature Free Fire, the director hits his stride with concept, straying from the convoluted narrative of his previous film.
Last year he helmed J.G. Ballard’s famously unadaptable “High-Rise” and, as forebode by many, it exploded on itself in a dystopian flurry of class struggle and chaos. While Wheatley’s previous projects have reveled in 100-mile an hour chutzpah, “Free Fire” has far more focus and restraint than his other projects. It is his own “Reservoir Dogs,” but the diamonds and suits are replaced by guns and groovy ‘70s accessories.
It is 1978, a shady night in a long-forgotten industrial district somewhere in Boston. With all of its rusted beams, electrical circuitry, and unexploded aerosol tanks, danger lurks around every corner. Two groups, aided by go-betweens Ord (Armie Hammer) and hard and fast businesswoman Justine (Brie Larsen), meet to exchange M16s for cash. The decked out cast includes sharp-tongued IRA member Chris (Cillian Murphy), stern Frank (frequent Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley), and junkie Stevo (Sam Riley). The vivid characterizations tinge “Free Fire’s” hour long shootout with rapport and plenty of antics. The deal’s stability is shaken when miscommunications and prior conflicts between the goons are brought into the foreground.
There is a strange giddiness conveyed throughout the film. When characters are shot in the calf or shoulder, they do not shriek in pain or desperation, but rather throw out an insult to their assailant. This crass humor works well to gel an hour of characters shouting at each other in an enclosed space.
Tracking shots and creative use of Go-Pro mounts impart exhilarating cinematography that complements the narrative’s ripples of tension. Acid jazz and brilliantly disoriented sound-mixing lead the frenzied sequences into a rattled delirium. Best of all, when the action has temporarily toned down, the characters’ network of interpersonal banter and chummy concord leaves nary a dull moment.
“Free Fire” dives deep in references to crime classics beyond just “Reservoir Dogs.” It harnesses the unsettling nature of David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet’s” surreal underworld, with Martin’s head wound in his yellow suit an overt reference to the classic’s bizarre conclusion. The narrative also revels in the cool guy cinema of guns, drugs, and testosterone, trumpeting the Cockney capers of Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” as well as “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.” Justine holds her own and kicks some ass in this factory full of sleazy men, in no way letting herself be marginalized by this majority.
While some may claim that it’s a frenzy of laugh-and-cringe action, “Free Fire” is just as much about the folly of diplomacy. There are interesting hints and references at British colonialism, a little on the nose for such a simple gangster premise. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the racketeers are portrayed just as much in their rough-and-tumble sleaze as in their background; the Bostonians, Irishmen, and South African constantly draw attention to and chide the other nationalities in the room. It is sly enough to initially pass as a ruse of narrative substance considering the film begins in medias res. However, after thinking beyond the superficial, it is just as much about the absurdities of diplomacy as it is surviving the gunfight.
The film is smarter than it looks. On the surface it may seem like hapless entertainment, but a further examination reveals the cleverness of how the writing interacts with the premise in considering how the two factions frequently break down and reassemble. Those that seem the most loyal betray, and those who have objectively better morals than the junkies or thugs turn out to have a trick or two up their paisley sleeves.
Wheatley intentionally omits details of many of the characters’ backgrounds, and even what the’ plan to do with the money or guns. He knows that when the credits roll, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Rather than seeing this as flippant or shallow, it is the result of precise vision; the lack of which conceptually howled throughout his previous film “High-Rise.” With subtlety he slips in this deeper layer, and by all means it is enjoyable to just immerse in the stylish turmoil for an hour and a half.
If nothing else, the colorful characters of “Free Fire” will entreat you to the blood-soaked meaninglessness in valuing resources over life and callously remind you that “you’ll find sympathy right next to syphilis in the dictionary.”