Brit director Ben Wheatley follows up High-Rise with another ’70s showcase. Swapping a tower block for a warehouse, he boldly builds an entire film around the mother of all Mexican stand-offs. Any one-location movie is a risky proposition, but Wheatley and co-writer/co-editor Amy Jump double their difficulties by stripping backstory to the bare minimum and letting the bullets fly.
To get some idea of the eardrum assault that is the Free Fire experience, picture True Romance’s magnificent ending stretched out to 90 minutes. It starts with two gangs arriving at a Massachusetts docks, circa 1978, for a major arms deal. In the red corner: Provisional IRA members Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), joined by hired muscle Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).
Supplying 30 assault rifles is South African gun-runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), with a manner so cocksure you just know he’s getting a bullet from someone. His back-up includes Harry (an unrecognisable Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).
And somewhere in the middle, brokering the deal, is Armie Hammer’s sharp-suited Ord, his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) and Justine (Brie Larson), the lone lady amid this tidal wave of testosterone.
Within minutes, it becomes clear this deal isn’t going to end well – the guns are the wrong sort and, worse still, Harry recognises Stevo from an unpleasant altercation the night before. Boys will be boys, of course, and it’s only a matter of time before punches are thrown. Wheatley doesn’t immediately pull out the big guns, though, letting tensions simmer until one bright spark can’t resist it.
When the caps start popping, it’s an orgy of noise, dust, bullets and screams that feels like it’ll never end. But Wheatley and Jump are smart enough to know that pumping lead for an hour-and-a-half simply won’t play. And so alliances are made and broken, as characters literally stagger from pillar to post, just as others realise the only way out is to call for back-up – no mean feat when the only phone in the building is upstairs.
It’s an intelligent piece of thriller engineering, oiled with ’70s style and some wonderful lines (mostly spoken by Copley, who has a field day with phrases such as “badinage” and “redeem yourself”). It’s also seasoned with some choice soundtrack cuts (John Denver gets an ironic airing, his twangy tones as memorable as Reservoir Dogs’ use of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in one particularly horrific scene).
True, Free Fire’s assault on the senses will annoy some, and it arguably lacks the layers of some of Wheatley’s earlier films. But for those craving an old-school thriller with blood on its hands (for starters), this is one hot ticket.