A movie breaks out during a firearm stunt reel in Free Fire
Wheatley flirts with Tarantino-esque “cool” crime with decidedly different results.
August 22, 2023

Wheatley flirts with Tarantino-esque “cool” crime with decidedly different results.

Every month, The Spool chooses to highlight a filmmaker whose works have made a distinct mark on the cinematic landscape.

With his love of mixing horror, dark comedy, and crime Ben Wheatley has been flirting with but never breaking through to the mainstream. However, this month that may all change.

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.

The plot of Free Fire, in many ways, could not be more straightforward. A mix of thugs, gun runners, and revolutionaries meet up to exchange weapons in a Boston warehouse in the 1970s. Things go wrong in a hurry.

As noted earlier in Filmmaker of the Month, Ben Wheatley first hit the scene with crime films in transition. Cinema was at the tail end of an era when Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie knockoffs clotted theatres. His Down Terrace seemed a deliberate rejection of those fast-talking “too cool for you” crime thriller/comedies. Instead, he depicted unfashionable career criminals screwing up their lives in decidedly grim and uncinematic ways. In contrast, Free Fire initially seems like the director and co-writer (scripting again with Amy Jump) is jumping on a trend a decade after it effectively died.

Opening in the cramped cab of a truck, the audience drops in on Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The former describes how he got beaten by the cousin of a woman he had assaulted earlier in the evening. The dialogue heightened, the attitude blasé. The mix gets brought down a bit with the additions of “adults” from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Wheatley mainstay Michael Smiley).

Free Fire (StudioCanal)
Brie Larson is locked and loaded. (StudioCanal)

However, the temperature gets pushed up again with the arrival of facilitators Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Hammer, in particular, seems to delight in making a meal of the chewy dialogue. Unfortunately, the casual homophobia peppered throughout this early scene undermines possible fun. Yes, it is 70s Boston, so it isn’t exactly period inappropriate, but that doesn’t make it necessary. And that’s even before you get into what we know about the actor now that we didn’t know then.

The whole stew of Free Fire hits a boil when arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his crew, Harry (Jack Reynor), Martin (Babou Ceesay), and Gordon (Noah Taylor), finally arrive. Copley, charitably described as a divisive presence in most films he appears, checks in at about an 11 from jump street. He fits Free Fire’s tone, but audiences previously disinclined to welcome him with open arms will likely find him immediately too much.

Free Fire (StudioCanal)
Why are Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley happy? This one secret trick doctors hate. (StudioCanal)

While he maintains that energy throughout, this is also the moment the film shifts into something very different. A past conflict between Stevo and Harry ratchets up tensions. A mistake with the order sets the fuse. Then someone loses their temper. What was a dialogue-heavy criminal snark-off becomes a full-out gunfight, a situation further stoked by the arrival of snipers seemingly with their own wholly separate agenda.

What takes up the remainder of the film is, essentially, a stunt and pyrotechnics reel. Wheatley, aided and abetted by frequent collaborator cinematographer Laurie Rose, indulges in an ever-escalating series of skirmishes. They involve hundreds of bullets, at least a dozen gunshot wounds, fires, vehicular homicide, physical fights both laughable and shockingly brutal, and a rapidly rising body count. 

When the smoke clears, Free Fire is an intriguing visual Senior thesis.

Considering the shocking amount of violence, the whole thing is surprisingly thin on bloodshed. That isn’t to say it is devoid of gore, but the space between what one might expect from the sheer volume of dead people and what actually shows on-screen is noteworthy. It seems a strange choice, a sanitizing of the events in a movie that has already more than earned its R-rating.

Still, in pulling back to consider Free Fire as a whole, one starts to discern a pattern. Throughout, Wheatley teases the audience with what Free Fire might be only to swerve. First, there was that Tarantino knockoff full of style and quips. The feature-length gunfight interrupts and then fully removes that from the table. However, that action also proves a feint. While over the top, it denies viewers both the kind of stylized thrills of a John Wick film and a blood-soaked squibfest for gorehounds.

Free Fire (StudioCanal)
“Are you not entertained?” demanded Cillian Murphy. Not exactly… (StudioCanal)

The interpersonal interactions similarly set up intriguing elements that never come to fruition. Righteous fury doesn’t lead to satisfaction for Reynor’s Harry, although many would find it morally just if he achieved it. Larson and Murphy have good, guarded flirtatious energy that nearly heats up several times but will leave anyone engaged by it left wanting. Even the climax of Free Fire, which initially promises some version of a happy ending for someone, at least, unravels just before the credits roll.

All of which makes it interesting, in a film studies dissection kind of way. That’s not quite the same as saying it is good, though. The 90-minute film that’s approximately 78 minutes of gunfight does overstay its welcome. Yes, Wheatley has a good point about cinematic violence versus the result thing, but being right doesn’t always make for watchability. It’s easy to admire who the director commits to rejecting every manner this kind of film might “sweeten” itself for audiences, but there’s a reason for those sweeteners. When the smoke clears, Free Fire is an intriguing visual Senior thesis.