A wise man once said that all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. British filmmaker Ben Wheatley doesn’t let his entry in the tough-guy canon tweak that formula per se – he just ups the ante substantially on the second part. Set in a Seventies Boston of mile-wide lapels and John Denver 8-tracks, this high-concept, high-caliber crime thriller maneuvers a handful of round-the-way hoods, a couple of IRA gents (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), some dapper arms dealers (Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay) and their broker (Brie Larson) into an abandoned warehouse. The Irish visitors want to buy assault rifles for the cause back home; the salesman are happy to oblige. Money, guns and trash talk are exchanged. It’s just a matter of time before the metaphorical spark hits the fuse. So it’s no surprise when a driver (Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor) recognizes one of the other party’s hired help (Sam Riley) as the no-good, two-bit junkie fucker who glassed his cousin. And everything quickly goes Peckinpah.
You ever watch a film with a showstopping gunfight and thought, would that I could literally stop the show and just watch this for hours? Congratulations, your wish has almost come true. Once pieces get pulled, the rest of Free Fire‘s 90-minute running time is devoted nothing but one long bullet-ridden set piece, in which the various players get winged and wounded while scrambling around in the real-time cinematic equivalent of a bottle episode. The occasional wild card gets dropped in – seemingly random snipers join the fray; everybody, watch out for those propane tanks! – but for the most part, it’s all ballistics and hardboiled banter.
Some folks score more points than others: Murphy does a familiar variation on his cool-cucumber Peaky Blinders‘ antihero; Hammer will never not seem like an off-the-rack Jon Hamm, though his college-professor demeanor and casual smarm under fire do wonders for him here; and you can’t underestimate the power of well-placed Larson eyeroll. (The real MVPs are the sound design team: You won’t hear a more lovingly calibrated symphony of pings, pops and pows.) This is a director’s movie from start to finish, however, and the movie lives and dies by how well you think Wheatley’s attempt at a feature-length experiment works. He’s essentially answering hypotheticals: Can I take everyone’s favorite sequence from Heat, extend it almost indefinitely and keep people from getting bored before the final shot rings out? Only half of that question can be answered with a full-throated yes.
For fans of the director, this almost feels like downshifting diversion. Easily one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, U.K. division, Wheatley started out specializing as a genre splicer: kitchen-sink realism meets mob story (Down Terrace); hitman thriller turned warped WTF horror (the instantly classic Kill List); a serial killer romcom (Sightseers). He then changed gears with a Pagan-psychedelic period piece (A Field in England) and a cult-novel adaptation (High-Rise) that both felt like distant transmissions from the planet Golden Age of Midnight Movies – the man had gone completely Roeg.
Free Fire may suggest Wheatley is deservedly moving up the industry food chain – it’s executive-produced by Martin Scorsese – but it also merely a formal exercise, albeit one buoyed by the sense that the director is having the time of his life behind the camera. His infectious sense of glee in choreographing all the pumped-up mayhem for its own pulped-out sake goes a long way to selling the movie. If its clip gets emptied before the characters’ ammunition runs out, the film still hits its target dead-center. You just can’t wait for him to get back to hunting bigger game.