About halfway into Free Fire, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to last year’s excellent existential horror High-Rise, I began worry I was watching something much more pedestrian than its predecessor. In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.
Staged “in real time,” Free Fire depicts a weapons deal gone horribly wrong in a 1970s Boston warehouse. Irish gangsters representing the IRA attempt to purchase a large quantity of assault rifles from South African crime lords with impartial American mediators maintaining order between them. The only reason the audience really has any incentive to prefer one faction’s victory over another is because one group is introduced first. Besides there being one woman in a sea of overly macho personalities hitting on her and referring to her as “Sweetheart,” “Doll,” and “Bird,” there isn’t much variation in the film’s various intergangster dynamics. Mostly, Free Fire‘s dozen or so characters are all irredeemable criminals, boys with their toys, who are attempting to get one over on each other in an exchange of funds & murder weapons. Once the familiarity of their antagonism breaks down and their vendettas transition from business to personal, the deal devolves into an hour-long shoot-out where everyone’s shot multiple times and it becomes a weird joke they there’s anyone still alive to continue the narrative. Even with exposed brains & bullet-shredded flesh, the warehouse full of bloodied-up reprobates somehow find the energy to lob witty insults at each other between the roars of gunfire. For something so horrifically violent, it’s decidedly goofy.
There’s a Walter Hill-style exploitation throwback quality to Free Fire‘s bare-bones premise and its “All guns. No control.” tagline suggests it actually has something to say about modern culture’s relationship with firearms, but the film often feels like a naked excuse to watch beautiful people (Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, etc.) model 70s fashion & fire weapons to incongruous pop songs by acts like CCR & John Denver. It’s easy to see why the marketing team felt it was appropriate to tout Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit so prominently in its advertising. Wheatley knows exactly what genre confines he’s working within here, though, and subverts them not through joking meta-commentary, but by playing them straight to an absurdly prolonged extreme. The last time I laughed this much at a character’s improbable, strained survival was watching Leonardo DiCaprio crawl & gurgle blood for hours on end in The Revenant. The difference in Free Fire is that the humor is intentional and every character is a post-bear attack DiCaprio, functioning like dead weight zombies who barely have the strength to lift guns in each other’s directions, much less take the time to aim. The film is impressive in its simple alchemy of making a familiar premise feel fresh again by sustaining it for an absurdly prolonged stretch of screentime. You may feel as if you’ve seen this exact film before, but you’ve never seen it pushed to such a sublimely silly extreme.