The late ‘70s. Boston. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy play two IRA gunrunners looking to buy. Sharlto Copley dons the mustache of someone with an eye to sell, backed by his crew of course. And Brie Larson and Armie Hammer are just along as the middle-persons to smooth things over. Director Ben Wheatley has other plans.
Within minutes, this single-set, semi-real-time excursion in carefree hostility mushrooms into full-on assault as the conflict extends upward through the entirely tenuous organizational structures, sending the diverse collection of ne’er do wells ricocheting around an abandoned factory. Or rather, crawling, staggering, and tumbling over, as one of the film’s niftiest decisions is to have everyone suffer an injury or seven early on, reducing them each to hobbling semi-incompetents and massaging the shootout into something more caustic and meaty as characters flail around struggling to move an inch. It’s the Wheatley touch, and although it’s a minor one in the grand scheme of things, it benefits Free Fire enormously.
It also allows him to banish the kind of slick, magnificent cool that action films are supposed to strive for these days. Wheatley, schooled in the exploitation-circuit, is more wild-hearted, and he takes these hot-blooded men and women – each a cocktail of egotism, posturing, and good old fashioned general Idiocy – and gives them the schlubby symphony of huffing, wheezing, and fumbling they all thought they were superior too. Free Fire, simple in its aims and minor in its pleasures, is essentially a film about a group of people who lose control of the action-movie-of-their-minds. Amusingly inelegant and impudent, scrappy rather than manicured, the film has the barely-hewn-together quality of the verge-of-post-industry Boston it relies on as backdrop.Free Fire scrapes the male psychology with bullets and splattered brains that are really projections of the mushrooming male ego in the first place.
Though the lone female, Brie Larson, a big to-do of late, isn’t exactly immune from the free-form violence around her. Increasingly desperate, she too unwinds into a mercurial force to be reckoned with, even as she remains the most sensible of the non-Irish contingent. She’s an empowered woman of a sort, although Free Fire certainly takes a more offhand attitude toward what I suspect the men in this film might have referred to as “Women’s Lib”. Gender isn’t really the focal point, although it is never far from the mind, subtly infecting every conversation and glance as Wheatley delights in the ever-mutable dynamics of fluid allegiances and sketchily defined moral perspectives as well as the loose geometry of the screen and the diegetic space.
Free Fire, on balance, waylays Wheatley’s real strengths as a filmmaker – a sense for subterranean social anxiety and the scintillating abjection of the reaper on your back – which makes it the least nefarious of his films thus far, although likely the most relatable. It’s certainly a bid for mainstream attention. It’s totally marginal in light of Wheatley’s other, more sinister works, but since Free Fire enjoys scribbling in the margins, it makes the most of it. This is slight, mostly empty-calorie material, but Free Fire performs a sort of cinematic addition by subtraction in the act of eschewing globe-trotting escapades and character depth. I wouldn’t want this to be Wheatley’s new day-wear, but it’s a respectable costume for a holiday. Or, considering that this is the least frightening of Wheatley’s films, any holiday but.