Some people aren’t looking for anything ordinary. Some people just want to watch the world burn. It’s that sense of destructive glee that’s at the heart of FREE FIRE, director Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the visually arresting High-Rise. Sticking with the claustrophobic single-location theme, he and co-writer Amy Jump send the coolest folks in wide-collared jackets into a gun battle that won’t stop until only one of them is left standing.
Set in the late 1970s in Boston, two gangs meet for a weapons exchange before things go horribly wrong. Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie arrive to meet IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley). Intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) introduces them to arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). After a tense exchange, the groups are about to part ways when Stevo recognises one of the gang members as the person who beat him up the previous day. Some harsh words and a gunshot later, it’s free-for-all gunplay.
FREE FIRE relies on a simple narrative structure, drawing a straight line between a simple deal going wrong through an escalating series of deaths. Balancing low-concept genre thrills against some cheeky black comedy sustains the momentum through what is effectively a battle royale in an abandoned factory. Think of it as middle-aged Hunger Games without any chance of romance or seeing the outside. Actually scrap that: this is the intensity of every action climax stretched into a feature-length film. This approach can understandably stretch its welcome, and 90 minutes of bloodletting is a tough ask even when the blood being let is from an incredibly charming international cast.
Even so, Wheatley’s finely honed style makes maximum use of the environment. In a closed space, any new element – be it a person, a telephone ringing, or the discovered of a new weaponisable object – is a shock to the system. Reverse and point-of-view shots are tools in cinematographer Laurie Rose’s toolbox that create the illusion of a much bigger space, or at least one that has a flexible geography. Occasionally a how-to guide for household combustibles, a hilariously dark sequence with Copley proves that the ’70s pant legs aren’t the only objects that flare.
The ensemble nature of the cast means there is no lead performer per se, and virtually everyone in the large group gets their moment in the spotlight. Brie Larson stands out not just for being the only female cast member, but bringing a wry sense of humour that will serve her Captain Marvel role well. Babou Ceesay, who spends half of the film unconscious, steals the several scenes when he is upstanding. Copley overdoes it a little bit, but that’s the nature of his character.
With so many bullets flying around a small space, some of them are going to hit their mark while others with ricochet off a support beam and cause unexpected results. FREE FIRE hits the mark more often than not, but its deliberate lack of any meat on the story bone gives it a small target to aim for. Nevertheless, with highly-quotable dialogue that is as rapid-fire as the balletic bullets, this is a rollercoaster for the eyes.