Have you ever watched Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? If not you should, it’s a real treat! But either way one of the highlight episodes of the first series is Jerry going for coffee with Alec Baldwin. In that episode Baldwin tells an anecdote about Rip Torn which resulted in a “Peckinpah-esque melee”, and throughout the 90 riotous minutes of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, I heard Alec Baldwin’s delivery of that line on a loop.
Set in a single location, and by Wheatley’s own description being a story that “never gets past scene one”, Free Fire sets its stall out quickly. An arms deal is taking place in an abandoned warehouse, the guns aren’t the ones that were promised to the buyers, one of the sellers’ crew has past beef with one of the buyers’ crew, everyone starts comparing dick sizes (including Brie Larson who is the biggest badass of all) and suddenly the characters find themselves in what may be the longest single gunfight in cinema history. We’re talking at least a full hour of gunfight which deftly shoehorns in character motivation and story, and manages to allow the audience to keep tabs on the geography. It’s a massive feat of directorial prowess.
Just like with Peckinpah, there’s so much beauty in the bullet ballet; so much style and substance. Just imagine the climactic battle in The Wild Bunch but massively extended and with so much humour injected that you find yourself creased double laughing when a man gets shot in the face. I suppose it’s Peckinpah meets Friz Freleng; pure unabashed tension and fun.
Aside from the proficiency of direction, a film like this rests on a stellar cast. Because if you take the guns away you’ve essentially got a 12 Angry Men setup. The characterisation has to be note perfect and the performers have to match up to the script. Happily this is true of Free Fire. Wheatley has assembled a rag-tag bunch of great character actors and Hollywood A-listers to fill his story with two handfuls of memorable performances. This includes Sharlto Copley as a mega-rich arms dealer with about as much social etiquette as a steaming turd, Armie Hammer as an imposing, far too suave assassin, Michael Smiley as an old school Irish gangster, Cilian Murphy as a no nonsense, hard as nails leader, Jack Reynor as an unhinged bodyguard/van driver who blasts John Denver from his 8 Track, Sam Riley as a complete nob junkie, hell-bent on ruining everything, and of course the aforementioned icy cool Brie Larson, the go-between and the ace in the pack.
Something else that needs noting in particular is the sound design and mixing. The only other times I’ve heard gunshots as powerful as this in the cinema were Tombstone and that scene in The Dark Knight where Bruce Wayne tests the ballistics of a shattered bullet by firing an enormous chain gun into a cement block. The difference here is that Free Fire contains literally thousands of ear shattering gun blasts. You feel each shot in your chest and through your teeth. In some cases this adds to the visceral tension and in others it adds an injection of humour. In both cases it is stunning.
This is cinema at its most fun. Free Fire is a 90 minute thrill ride that holds you at the edge of your seat and leaves your ears ringing for so long you’d think you’d been to a Rammstein gig. Ben Wheatley continues to prove that he is a dab-hand at any genre, any style, and excels given any limitations. Long may that continue.