How does one advocate for gun control against the insanity of violence and human killing where everyone wants and has a gun, or maybe two or three or 10? Ben Wheatley makes an incredible effort to present an outrageous view of violence in his sardonic, bullets roaring, over-the-edge, shoot-em-up gangster massacre Free Fire. Male egos stirred up by inflexibility, inanity, vengeance, and suicidal competitiveness perpetrate suffering, misery, torment, and death. And it’s all in the fun of it because life isn’t precious to anyone toting a gun or in the business of arms deals.
Wheatley’s amazingly orchestrated ensemble of actors prove these themes with realism, brio, and energy. The result opens the floodgates issuing a torrent of humorous irony and a fusillade of gun-fire that leaves one screaming “enough already!” Put your penises away and calm down! But by then it’s too late and one must follow through to the finish to see if anyone can lift one’s head above a snake crawl, let alone get to his or her knees before bleeding to death.
Wheatley’s – he directed and wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump – interesting twist in all this machismo is Brie Larson, who portrays the initially mild-mannered, cool-headed Justine. She is present in the decrepit 1970s Boston warehouse to broker an arrangement between the IRA represented by Chris (an even and emotionally balanced Cilian Murphy), and Frank (Michael Smiley), and arms dealers, South African Vernon (the pompously funny, scene-stealing Sharlto Copley), and Ord (the suave, prepossessed Armie Hammer).
While Justine attempts to make sure the arms deal runs smoothly, the first of the ratchets pumps up the tension. There’s a potential double cross. The wrong merchandise has been brought and this escalates the wrangling about it as members of both sides stand by poised for trouble. Should the deal be accepted? The longer they remain there niggling, the more likelihood things will get “out of hand,” which they do.
One of the gang members, who has a vendetta against an old enemy, recognizes that the abusive louse who mistreated a woman he knows is a member of the other team. Harry (Jack Reynor), seizes up like an overheated engine and seethes into high gear attacking Stevo (Sam Riley), beginning the fray. Snipers who have been hired to “watch their members’ backs” unleash their fury and gunfire rages. There are no compromises or reconciliations as all leap for the arms brought to be dealt and they are hoisted on their own petard as they use them against one another in a wasted and purposeless target practice, far off their initial intentions. Their very weapons are turned toward their own entrails, arms, legs, organs, torsos. As for the money? Where is it in all this blaze of “glory?” And will anyone manage to get their hands on the case and crawl to secret safety?
All fall down. One by one, sooner or later the key players get bloodied, torn up, and bullet riddled. They crawl to various cover locations to vie for supremacy against their enemies, never dropping their guns or pulling out white handkerchiefs or tissues for a cease fire, which no one would believe anyway, since the double-cross and revenge of a grievance have left a noisome stench in the air which has augmented to choke everyone. The quips and starts and injuries and comments are hysterically pitched as the bullets range loudly and sounds of clangs, fire bursts and mini explosions go off pinging Vernon in the shoulder or Ord in the arm and others in the legs, chest, or wherever flesh can leach blood.
At first Justine holds back and it is the men going at each other infuriated at the audacity that others have shot and wounded them. But when Justine joins in and shoots to protect herself, maim and kill, it is a delay that is somehow humorous. How can we be surprised? Fury and competitive killing are contagious like a disease. Even women are made into killers to survive.
Indeed, when one is in the cross-fire, one is forced to use a gun. And as Wheatley ironically underscores, around weapons the risk reward ratio is off the charts favoring the greatest probability that folks will be shredded because there is no way to control human emotions, actions, reactions, and sheer craziness once the first shot is unleashed.
The comedic drama is circumscribed in the space of the warehouse. We are able to follow the action acutely, waiting to see what body part of which character gets smashed next. We are keen for their reactions as the players crawl to each other for comfort or support or the pure camaraderie of killing. The breaks in the fire fights are filled with snatches of conversation. These only serve to increase the furious pace of bullets flying as the possibility of an ending or escape is sought to no avail. They must reach their own conclusions individually and we are left amazed at how untenable situations seek their natural cessation. We all die anyway. But this way? These characters would have it no other way.
At the Q and A, Ben Wheatley discussed that seven thousands rounds of ammunition had to go through the set ups and be sound tracked. The cast also discussed that they were confined to various locales and could not wander freely around the set because it would destroy the continuity. Thus, Wheatley shot the film as a stage play would be directed, following a strict chronology and sequence. For the actors, the shoot was a lot of fun and that comes through in the film with the ridiculousness of the high-pitched situation.
Free Fire delivers for its genre as a hyper-paced, action comedy smack-down, cinematically driven, smartly edited, beautifully lit in tans and browns, and packed with thrills. There are no heroes or villains, just these poor folks who die by their own hands because of how they have double-dealt themselves. Wheatley’s work is effective, exhaustive, and slyly pulls no punches in delivering its message.