Free Fire (2017) by Ben Wheatley
Review by Lydia Creech
Ben Wheatley populates his films with aggressively shitty, stupid people, then puts them in hermetically sealed environments and lets them be aggressively shitty and stupid to each other until there’s only one left standing. They elicit less laughs out loud than twisted smirks, and though it feels like it’s capturing a global mood at the moment, I suspect that this is just Wheatley’s outlook on people (I am fine with this).
Free Fire is super high concept--a gun deal goes wrong and devolves into shooting for 90 minutes--and right in my wheelhouse. The gunfight basically plays out in real time and in one location, my favorite thing. It’s also a HARD R. I’m always complaining that the violence in PG-13 blockbusters doesn’t hurt or have consequences, and if Free Fire maybe doesn’t deliver the laughs, it certainly delivers punishment.
To be clear: I am not actually a fan of gore, but if you get shot in the head there is going to be a lot of blood, and I think movies that don’t go there are being irresponsible. Gunfights are not actually stylish and suave; there is a ton of downtime and regrouping to lick wounds, punctuated by bursts of violence. Wheatley has talked in interviews about using a real FBI report of a shootout in Miami to help craft the script, and how surprised he was at the account of how drawn out it could be. Unlike John Wick, these people are ordinary and scared and imperfect shots, and though the characters in this film also eat a lot of bullets, here it leaves them crawling around on the floor and writhing in pain (we are meant to laugh at this, and they deserve it).
Prime example: Sharlto Copley in the role of Vernon. Copley basically reprises his role as Wikus from District 9, that is, self-important and arrogant, despite being so very, very dumb. He’s not the one who starts the shitshow, but at every turn he makes it worse. He’d be such an easy character to hate if he were put up against anyone better, but fortunately, everyone else is just as terrible. In fact, at every turn where this fight could be headed off or stopped, characters consistently choose to be mean and petty instead. The only woman in the film, Justine (played by Brie Larson), mutters a pejorative “men” before collapsing from her wounds, and maybe that’s as good a summary of what’s wrong with everyone as it gets (complicated, of course, by her own shitty behavior, which the also film doesn’t let her get away with).
Yet, if all these people are terrible, what makes Free Fire compelling? We talk a lot on the podcast about the joy of perfect execution (see Mad Max: Fury Road, John Wick 1 & 2, The Shallows...), and Wheatley more than delivers on his simple premise. He makes excellent use of the space of the warehouse the characters are trapped in, finding a way to make each outburst of gunfire into a unique setpiece. He has a wicked talent for adding in surprising and funny details (“it’s beard oil”) to flesh out characters that otherwise we might not have any reason to feel like we know (though not necessarily making us care for them any more). Additionally, in the same interview above, he speaks about Free Fire as a reaction against the cartoon violence in superhero movies, and viewed through that lens, Free Fire certainly delivers an antidote on that front. Moreover, I think Free Fire gets even grittier than John Wick 2 and provides an answer to Andrew’s moral quandary with the violence in that film by removing any likability and cool whatsoever from our protagonists.
Finally, though maybe the hardest selling point, watching a film that kind of confirms how terrible I suspect ordinary folks to be feels perfect for the moment, and nothing more has to be read into it than that.