There’s a distinct electricity that’s evident right from the start of the opening credits of Ben Wheatley’s latest film, Free Fire. Overhead shots of a city at night, passing glimpses of light saturated with color, and scored to a 70s soundtrack set the tone for for a savvy, whip-smart action romp. It’s a promising beginning, and one the film absolutely delivers on, just not in the way you might expect it to.
Having Martin Scorsese as an Executive Producer helps bring in a sense of authenticity, both to the timeframe and the genre, both of which are where the auteur cut his teeth. It’s impossible to say what it would look like without his creative touch, but even though this is Wheatley’s film, there’s just the subtlest hint of Scorsese throughout.
As the roster of characters start to converge outside a barren industrial district, their personalities push their way to the surface almost immediately. They rattle off wry, sardonic comments to one-another, never quite revealing who’s on whose side here. After being ushered inside by Ord (a bearded Armie Hammer), the intention of the meeting is revealed: Chris (Cillian Murphy) is there to buy a stockpile of automatic weapons on behalf of the IRA.
This is when we’re introduced to Vernon (Sharlto Copely, also sporting some magnificent era-appropriate facial hair), a squirrelly arms dealer who ends up bringing the wrong kind of weapons. It’s here that the already tense situation starts to get a little heated. Suddenly everyone’s wearing their mistrust on their sleeve, and as suspicions start to boil over, you can’t help but wonder where the film will go from this point.
Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t go anywhere — at least as far as its setting is concerned. Rather than spill out into the streets, the action stays entirely within the four walls of the warehouse, creating a claustrophobic, subversive, anti-action movie.
Characters get shot, they bleed, they sweat, they limp around wounded while they worry about infection. There are no slow-motion shots, dramatic stunts, or cool catch-phrases, just low-ranking criminals in an increasingly desperate situation. It’s a shootout between two gangs that couldn’t shoot straight, and a film that finds itself (successfully) fending off its own absurdity through its wicked, boisterous sense of humor.
In short, Free Fire is a crisp, clever action movie that manages to subvert your expectations while taking a fresh approach to a well-worn trope. It pulls it all off, too, largely because it never takes itself too seriously.