‘Free Fire’ Is a Love Letter to Guns and Criminal Stupidity
A 90-minute firefight with hilarious banter, the IRA and Sharlto Copley
Gunfights in real life never happen the way we see in film. People miss more than they hit, some of the wounds are superficial, guns jam and nothing goes as planned … if there was even a plan to begin with. There’s a lot of cowering in cover, taking potshots and throwing rocks when you run out of ammo. Also, lots of crawling. So much crawling.
Free Fire is a movie about the kind of shootout you read about in police reports and after action reports. It’s funny, fast, weird and stupid, but all that makes it great. Writer and director Ben Wheatley knows how to make a movie and knows how to write compelling criminals. His films are like Tarantino movies without the pop culture riffs and morally ambiguous heroes. In Wheatley’s world, there are no heroes. Not ever.
So we have Free Fire—a 90-minute love letter to shooting people. The first 20 minutes are set-up and then it quickly devolves into a firefight that lasts more than hour. It’s often stupid and silly, but it’s never boring.
Free Fire doesn’t require a lot of prelyde and to tell you too much about its meager plot would spoil its surprises. Brie Larson is Justine—a person putting some Irish Republican Army types in touch with some international weapons merchants. Cillian Murphy is Chris, the point man for the IRA and the delightfully repugnant Sharlto Copley is Vernon the weapons merchant.
“He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and he never got over,” Justine tells Chris when Vernon first shows up to the meet.
“What is he now?” Chris says.
“An international asshole,” Justine replies.
Wheatley’s script maintains that level of witty banter throughout the ensuing gun battle. Chris and crew want to buy M-16s and Vernon and his team show up with crates of AR-70s. After some initial tension, the two teams decide to do the damn deal but the whole thing explodes into violence before either side can walk away with the guns or the cash.
Minutes after the opening credits roll, everyone is in the dirt of an abandoned warehouse yelling at each other and shooting blindly around corners desperately trying to survive the dumbest shootout you’ve ever seen.
I’ve called the movie dumb a few times now and I want to stress that this is a great film. The dialogue is sharp, the acting wonderful and the directing spot on. The sound design is perfect too—this is a film you really want to see in the theater or with a decent 5.1 setup at home.
Bullets crack and whiz around your head. A rifle sounds very different from a pistol which sounds way different than a revolver. The sound effects person on Free Fire cared about creating a distinction between the different firearms and then used the space in the theater to create a sense of threat as the actors huddle behind concrete slabs and wince away from debris. It’s awesome.
But it’s still all so stupid and undignified. In most action movies, the heroes conduct themselves with a grace and dignity. I’m so used to the grand Hong Kong Blood Opera tradition where gun battles are an elegant ballet that watching characters cower in dirt, scream, whine and cry for an hour is unsettling and funny. This ain’t John Wick.
That was the point.
Wheatley got the idea for Free Fire while reading the FBI’s report on a shootout it had in Miami in 1986. The report was forensic and gave a lengthy blow-by-blow of the action. Technically, the battle happened in an unincorporated chunk of Miami-Dade County. Ah, Florida.
FBI agents planned to take down a pair of serial bank robbers. It didn’t go well. The feds outnumbered the robbers four to one, but the criminals managed to kill two and wound several others. Both sides took wounds and kept firing over a prolonged gun battle. The incident involved 10 people, five minutes and 145 bullets.
Wheatley drags his film out more than that—it’s a movie after all—but he keeps the tension cranked to 11 the whole way through. Every scene is absolutely necessary, there’s no fat on this film. It’s fantastic.
To keep everything straight, Wheatley drew up 1,700 storyboards and rendered a 3D model of the set in the popular video game Minecraft. “We could share that amongst all the people who working on it, and all walk around inside it together. That was really useful,” Wheatley told Wired.
Wheatley’s made an incredible film, made more incredible when you realize it doesn’t have a protagonist … and he gets away with it. As a long time fan of Wheatley’s work, I suspect he doesn’t like people or hope.
He’s prone to stories about drug dealers, decadent high rises, occult murders and English soldiers tripping balls on magic mushrooms. Every film has characters, but most of them are foolish and the protagonist is usually the biggest fool of all.
Free Fire is different only in that it distributes the pain evenly and plays all its characters for fool. There are no winners or losers in Wheatley’s worlds, just idiots hurting themselves. And strangely, Free Fire has no traditional protagonist. Hell, most of the characters aren’t even sympathetic.
And yet, the film is incredible. Go see it.