Free Fire Proves Ben Wheatley Hasn’t Lost His Touch
Wheatley’s Latest Festival Darling Lives Up To The Hype.
When talking about Hollywood stars you often hear people say they have “IT.” It is a hard to define concept, more of a feeling in your gut than a concrete definition. It’s the thing that makes your eyes light up when certain people walk into a room. It’s affability, it’s charisma, and it’s unquantifiable magnetism: Brando had “IT,” Marilyn Monroe, had “IT.” Free Fire, the latest film from director, Ben Wheatley, has “IT.” Maybe that IT is what drew executive producer Martin Scorsese on board. Maybe the film works like gangbusters because of Scorsese. Either way, if pulpy tales with seedy arms dealers, back alley double crosses, and crazy shootouts are your thing, then you’ll get “IT” by Free Fire’s opening frame. If the appeal of violence and despicable characters leaves you scratching your head, then run for the hills because there is nothing, I mean absolutely nothing for you here.
Free Fire is less a movie about plot than a series of intense moments. The story brings together two groups of loathsome characters for an arms deal in an abandoned warehouse. That’s really all there is to it. Think of each side as characters from Tarantino’s, The Hateful Eight. Nobody trusts anyone else, every last character is as crooked as a $3 bill, and they can barely contain their contempt for one another. As tensions finally spill over, an epic gun fight breaks out. When I say epic I may be understating the scale. The gun fight lasts for most of the movie – considering how “ratchet” these characters are, it’s a Christmas miracle they made make it as far into the movie as they do without blowing each other’s brains out.
Free Fire’s premise is difficult to pull off. As cool as it sounds, an hour-long gun fight is a recipe for disaster. Action that drones on can become numbing. Fortunately Wheatley nails; the picture works because of his great pacing and his strong cast. This is a movie where you don’t like anybody. There is no central protagonist to root for; everybody is a scumbag. When the bullets start flying and bodies start dropping, any character can get wiped off the board at any moment. Without Free Fire’s charismatic cast the audience would have a hard time staying invested in the action.
What about that amazing cast? Right off the bat, you have Brie Larson (fresh off her Oscar win) as the icy Justine. The only thing betraying Justine’s calm exterior is her predator like eyes. Cillian Murphy does a serviceable job as Chris, an IRA member looking to secure automatic weapons. Wheatley movie muse Michael Smiley is a kick to watch as Frank, the surly hired muscle. Frank and laid back middle man Ord (Armie Hammer), have a hate on for each other and some of Free Fire’s best moments are when the two sling insults back and forth. By the end of the film, everyone is bound to have a favorite dirt-bag to root for or against.
Sharlto Copely’s psychopathic pipsqueak Vernon is the character that really pops. Vernon is a first-class D-bag, all big collars, gold chains, and chest hair (he looks like he walked off the set of Three’s Company). The man is a force of nature, and Wheatley knows just how to utilize him. In high enough doses a character like Vernon can become grating. Wheately uses Copely just enough so that every time he shows up on screen it’s feels like a treat.
Free Fire takes an interesting stance on violence. The quick take would be to say Free Fire and its hour-long gun fight glorify violence. I would argue that’s not the case. The violence in the film is the opposite of glamorous, it’s repugnant. The characters in the film don’t look cool shooting guns. They miss shots, they get hit, they scream, they whine, they flail, and then they drag themselves across the floor like wounded animals. When the violence breaks out they look less like a crew of hardened criminals than a team of mathletes at a paintball range. There are terrible consequences to the violence as well. The action leaves everyone battered, bloodied, and broken. By the third act, the remaining survivors look like cast-offs from The Walking Dead.
Free Fire made its debut as a Midnight Madness presentation which is a perfect way to see it. More so than most films, Free Fire works best when you’re in an ideal setting. In the digital age, it’s tempting to stay home and kick it with Netflix. Movies aren’t made to be consumed at home on a flat-screen TV. These movies are meant to be seen in large dark rooms, on giant silver screens, while surrounded by large groups of strangers. Free Fire is a nod to low-budget 80’s movies and grind house cinema. This film works best sitting amongst a pumped up crowd. A midnight madness audience’s kinetic energy intensifies Free Fire’s over the top action. It’s the same reason why comedies rarely feel as funny when you watch them by yourself. The film never takes itself too seriously; in Free Fire, the only thing flying faster than the bullets are the hilarious quips. If action, violence, and dark humor sounds like your kind of thing, then get ready to have a blast.