Ben Wheatley, 2016, France-UK
Perhaps Ben Wheatley’s most straightforward concoction: a gun deal gone wrong due to personality clashes. Violent, funny, an unambiguous romp through a well-worn crime scenario. The humour comes not only from the dialogue – script by Wheatley and Amy Jump – but because there is no illusion that anyone is truly in control of the bullets. In fact, the poster with the characters apparently shooting one another in a circle implies more aim and accuracy. The film takes a moment to show how Cillian Murphy might be good in a shotting-range context, but when the shootout begins this skill doesn’t seem to guarantee much. It’s funny when the chaos finds its mark. If sometimes the audience is wondering who is shooting at who, that’s surely by design. The bullets zip, roar, ricochet and sometimes hit what they’re meant to – it’s a great sound mix. Wheatley has spoken of feeling numbed by the CGI bloodless slaughter and mass destruction that mark tentpole blockbusters and also of an FBI report he read of a shootout which had multiple participants that took a long while to play out. This has inspired a more reality based conception of a shootout as messy and protracted that allows plenty of slapstick.
Sharlto Copley looks like he might run-away with it all due to being the most jokey character, but that would be impossible with such a uniformly strong cast. Everyone breathes life into these criminal lowlife types, enough to carry it all through. They are scum, but it’s entertaining to see them go at each other. The Seventies period setting allows John Denver on 8-Track and an absence of mobile phones – so the phone in the office becomes something worth fighting for and this also allows for a good phone gag – but the premise is timeless: armed people will always fight, over grudges, over stupidity, over ego, to be cool. Killing your opponent will solve everything. It’s a movie where a repeated gag is that someone’s wounds will probably take an hour or so to really put them out. There’s a moment where a stricken hitman calls out for the hospital, which speaks to the general tone of absurdism and which is rare in for a gun-battle: it implies that they somehow all think this a game where, should you actually get hit, a rule is you can call for medical assistance; or that they think they won’t be the one to be hit. This speaks to the affectations of genre and also the misplaced ego a firearm endows on the owner. Indeed, everyone seems to think they have to shoot it out rather than find out how to escape with their lives. (If you want to see political allegory in this, you can.)
‘Free Fire’ is both superficial – it’s widely entertaining and probably Wheatley’s most shallow project – and admirable in trying to inject some verisimilitude into a scenario that typically takes a few minutes in other films. By the end, the injured are only able to mostly crawl and limp, drained of energy from blood loss. It turns into a comedy of character clashes and a slapstick shootout that hurts and kills, and it’s fun.