By any reasonable expectation, “High-Rise” was poised to be Ben Wheatley’s crossover hit, the movie that would bring him mainstream attention after capturing the hearts of genre fans with “Kill List.” Certainly, Wheatley was in no hurry to curry favor with a wider audience, crafting movies like the pitch black comedy “Sightseers” and the wildly experimental “A Field In England” in the interim. However, with an A-list cast — Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans — delivering an adaptation of a novel by J.G. Ballard, all the ingredients were there.
However, Wheatley once again followed his own distinct muse, creating a wildly surreal ride that was for fans only. And so, the question coming into “Free Fire,” which boasts its own all star ensemble — Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor — was whether or not Wheatley would follow his own imaginative tangent, or lean toward putting something together that would bring newcomers over to his brand of filmmaking. The answer with “Free Fire” is that the co-writer and director has done both, delivering a shoot-em-up with a wide streak of wicked humor, coupled with no shortage of bullets and blood, marking his most purely popcorn and wildly enjoyable movie to date.
It doesn’t take much to set off the fireworks in “Free Fire,” and that’s part of its charm. Set in 1970s Boston, the story sees an arms deal, brokered by Justine (Larson) and Ord (Hammer), take place between Chris (Murphy), a buyer seeking weapons for the IRA, and a lively South African gun runner named Vernon (Copley), whose personality is as loud as the suit he’s wearing. And from the start, there’s unease in the air. Chris isn’t certain if Justine isn’t actually a government agent, and becomes peeved when he discovers he’s being sold AR-17s, instead of the M16s he ordered. And then there’s Stevo (Riley), an underling in Chris’ gang, who also happens to be a wild card that can’t be contained. If the law of screenwriting is that if a gun is introduced in the first act, it’ll go off in the third, Wheatley gleefully tweaks that rule to his own taste here: if there’s a warehouse filled with men (and one woman) with guns, they’re all going to off before the first act is over.
Indeed, an escalating series of small events eventually sets off a chain reaction that sees everyone taking cover, firing at each other, with the lines of loyalty versus the need for self-preservation taking not much time at all to start shifting from moment to moment, from each pull of the trigger. The irony, of course, is that for a bunch of people who don’t need to think twice about shooting whatever is at the end of the barrel, they’re all terrible shots. Shoulders are grazed, thighs are shot, and bullets ricochet wildly, leaving pretty much everyone bloodied, badly hurt, and pulling themselves across the gritty warehouse floor trying to take cover. But the film never runs out of steam. For a single setting movie, which also comes close to unfolding in real time, “Free Fire” never lets the structure or concept get in the way of a good time. And as the minutes roll by, Wheatley embraces the growing absurdity of the situation, not only finding the right balance between B-movie abandon and maintaining the stakes at hand, but also cleverly introducing plenty of surprises from what could be a quickly become a staid setup.
None of this works without an intensely organized approach to the mechanics of the set pieces, and it’s impressive the way Wheatley and his team manage to keep the geography of the warehouse and the status of the constantly shifting alliances crystal clear. There is never any doubt where anybody is, or what they’re fighting for in the moment, but there’s also a lightness of touch that leads to more than a few explosively hilarious moments. And these are counterweighted by an escalating tension, which is underscored by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s carefully employed score that is at once both minimal and vibrating with anxiety. And pulling it all together are the cast, who have a whale of time, with those playing big, broad characters — Hammer and Copley in particular — truly standing out. “Free Fire” is a movie that demands personality, and there’s plenty of it to go around.
If you strain hard enough, perhaps you can find a message in here about the futility of gun violence, where those with guns and those without have an equal chance of winding up dead, and how that plays out in a culture where weapons seem as easily obtained as a carton of milk. But Wheatley’s primary concern, at least with this film, isn’t politics. There’s no real prevailing message unless you really want to dig in and find it. With “Free Fire,” Wheatley wants to push his own limits of onscreen mayhem, taking things right to the line where most directors would pull back, and pushing everything right over. And what the director winds up doing is making a big, magnificent noise, one that will certainly see more than his core fanbase sitting up and paying attention. [B]
This review is a reprint that originally ran during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.