Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, out today on home video, is a master-class in story decompression and old-fashioned gun fights. It’s also a throwback to simpler action movie times when the stakes could be a measly $10,000.
Set in the 1970s, the film stars Cillian Murphy as Chris, an IRA man attempting to buy some guns from a South African arms dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley). They meet in an abandoned factory somewhere in Boston, where their hangers-on escalate a disagreement to a full-fledged shootout.
And that’s the extent of the plot. Where other films might spend time setting up the characters in convoluted ways, Free Fire wastes no time getting you to the factory and spending its whole runtime there. But as the characters assemble in the film’s only location, we meet people like Ord (Armie Hammer), the well-spoken American mediator, Frank (Michael Smiley) an older IRA man with a short fuse, his brother-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley), and Justine (Brie Larson), another American facilitating the deal and putting up with the advances of both Vernon and Chris.
There are a number of other actors, like Jack Raynor, filling out Vernon’s company. But I wanted to point out the headliners because each of the them can carry a movie. Well, creatively anyway. Hammer’s lead roles tend to meet with box office apathy. But the point still stands: Wheatley assembled a great cast for this shoot-em-up and their talents make the film so much more than what it might be otherwise. The characters are simple — backstory is for other movies — but performers like Copley and Larson bring them to such life that their pain as they get shot or crawl across glass becomes palpable.
Oh, and when someone gets shot, it doesn’t mean instant death. One of the great features of the film is the slow disintegration of the group stuck in the factory. Each must manage escalating injuries as legs and shoulders take hits. It also leads to a certain realistic quality even as the film inhabits the heightened reality of a 70s crime picture.
And though the film strives for realistic gunplay, Wheatley’s camera is still fresh and inventive. It also keeps a tight rein on the geography of the factory and the placement of the ne’er-do-wells therein. Which is certainly helpful when a third group appears with sniper riffles.
The film is also refreshing for its very limited stakes. Instead of depleting the gold reserves or destroying the moon, all of these people are fighting over a few tens of thousands of dollars — if even that much. But in creating recognizable stakes, the dilemma makes sense without a lot of exposition. Wheatley, instead, is free to play the tension and comedy of the situation as he sees fit. While a small film in many ways, it offers big laughs and one of the best shoot-outs of the year.
And befitting the film’s scale, the extras are fairly simple: a commentary and a Behind-the-Scenes featurette. The latter is a surprisingly fun look at making the film, from talking head moments with the cast to a discussion of how Wheatley planned the gunfights. There’s also the surprise of learning that the film’s most gruesome moment was shot practically and that Wheatley volunteered to demonstrate the trick before his actor would do it.
The commentary track features Wheatly, Murphy and Raynor. It’s a fairly chummy affair as the group sit down to watch the film after the premiere. While it features little gems like Wheatley calling his wife (screenwriter Amy Jump) the “potty-mouth” in their scripting collaboration, it does suffer from the lack of context commentaries recorded before release tend to have. When the filmmakers do not know how their film was received, it creates a certain hollowness. At the same time, the group is fun to listen to; with Wheatley offering a few fun on-set stories.
All and all, Free Fire is fun film. It reminds that good action sequences can come from ordinary people with ordinary problems. It also makes John Denver music a great punchline.