Boston, 1978. Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are two Irishman in town to purchase a consignment of guns, in a deal brokered by Justine (Brie Larson). However, when the consignment doesn't mean their expected standards, tempers flare and soon devolves into a gun fight...
Ben Wheatley's made a career out of making sharp, boldly original films that fly in the face of convention. A Field In England was a unique, mind-warping experience that fused psychological thriller with folk horror whilst Kill List used fly-on-the-wall filmmaking techniques with a deeply disturbing story of suburban violence. Free Fire is, by far, his straightest and his most accessible film, but it's heartening to know that Wheatley hasn't lost any of his vitriol or black humour. Instead, he's fashioned into a bullet-fast action comedy that takes a leaf out of '70s and '80s action comedies.
There's no lengthy preamble to Free Fire, no unnecessary world-building or even larger motivations of the characters. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley simply want to buy guns from Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer, but after a misunderstanding over the difference between an M-16 and a pre-existing conflict between supporting characters, the thing quickly spins out of control and into an all-out gunfight. Without giving too much away, Amy Jump's screenplay does an impressive job of putting the film on rails, but the way it quickly dissolves into chaos is half the fun of the film.
Each of the characters is essentially an archetype of some sort. Smiley and Murphy are the straight-edge, no-nonsense types. Armie Hammer's the cocky businessman. Sharlto Copley's the comic relief. You've got Brie Larson in there as attempting to bridge the gap between them and, flying around like monkeys with wrenches, are Jack Reynor and Sam Riley. Like the film itself, they're not developed beyond what's necessary because we don't really need to know. The dialogue is razor-sharp and blackly funny, jittering along like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Brest circa Midnight Run and Beverly Hills Cop. Each of the actors are working within their own strengths - Murphy is humourless whereas Hammer is all smack-talk, whilst Copley prat-falls as much as he possibly can.
As mentioned, Free Fire is undoubtedly Wheatley's straightest film and here, he's jettisoned much of the visual flairs that he's been known for in the past. There's less flourish to it, instead opting for straightforward, no-frills approaches, which in turn means there's less to hang on it to it . This likely explains why the film comes in at a sharp ninety minutes and doesn't overextend itself beyond that. With that in mind, those who may have enjoyed Wheatley's more in-depth, cerebral work - such as High-Rise or even Sightseers, to some degree - will find nothing here. It's all surface level action comedy, but that's OK because when it's funny, it really does go for the most messed-up laughs imaginable. As well as this, the gunplay is well choreographed and has a strong sense of geography and twists are dropped in when needed to keep the action flowing.
Overall, Free Fire blends black comedy with grimy '70s action to create something not necessarily original, but something that hasn't been seen in a long time - an action comedy that's actually funny.