Usually Chekhov’s gun is something that doesn’t come into play until the third act, but in writer-director Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, they fire Chekhov’s gun, his pistol, his automatic rifle, his snub-nosed revolver, and his sniper rifle—and they fire it constantly for nearly the entirety of the film’s runtime. It’s a bloody, violent, darkly comedic tale of an arms deal gone awry, anchored by a cast of terrific actors exhibiting a wide variety of facial hair and leisure suits. In other words, it’s no surprise that it’s executive produced by Martin Scorsese.
With Free Fire, Wheatley has created a nearly perfect midnight movie. That “midnight” qualifier is important because the film, at 90 minutes, can sometimes feel repetitive in its action, grating in its eardrum-shattering volume, and frustrating depending on your tolerance for silly accents. Those are all legitimate gripes—and I understand them on a clinical level—but I did not share them as I gleefully cheered on Wheatley’s demented vision alongside the airhorn-toting oddballs and balloon-popping weirdos that packed Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre for last night’s Midnight Madness premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Structured like a bottle episode of your favorite TV show (but not quite as good as Breaking Bad‘s transcendent “Fly”), Free Fire largely takes place within a sprawling, long-abandoned industrial warehouse. The dirt-covered ground is strewn with all manner of detritus, running the gamut from rebar to cinder blocks to used needles. In other words, it’s not a place you’d want to hang out in at night (or during the day for that matter) …unless, of course, you were trying to purchase a slew of automatic rifles from a particularly unscrupulous dealer. And that’s exactly what IRA gun runner Chris (Cillian Murphy) and his men are trying to do with the squirrelly, cantankerous, and exceptionally vain arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his cronies. Both sides are exceptionally skittish and weaselly in their own ways, which means that the duo who brokered the deal—the mysterious businesswoman Justine (Brie Larson) and her snarky, hirsute associate Ord (Armie Hammer)—have to tiptoe around fragile egos and keep these lowlifes from blowing each other to smithereens. Of course, that plan goes to hell in a hand basket pretty quickly when a disagreement snowballs into a guns akimbo battle royale where everyone is shooting everything at everyone else all the time always.
What follows is complete and utter chaos, with bullets and pointed verbal barbs ricocheting all over the place, often finding their mark in the various extremities of this gang of low-rent criminals. With both their physical well-being and their pride at stake, each character’s hidden motivations begin bubbling to the forefront, and the results are frequently hilarious. What really sells the film, though, is its ensemble cast—which also includes Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, and Babou Ceesay to name a few—and their sheer commitment to the bit. Accents, wigs, and facial hair aside, this is a delightful showcase for physical comedy tinged with white-knuckle brutality with the bullet-riddled buffoons limping, crawling, and staggering around the warehouse in their attempt to get the drop on their opponents. On occasion, the film’s formula of “gunplay, verbal sparring, physical comedy” can get a bit repetitive, but Wheatley wisely keeps the running time lean and the action moving at a steady clip so as to not wear out his welcome or exhaust the narrative’s premise.
Free Fire has all the makings of a future cult classic—especially if its response on social media following the screening was any indication. People oscillated wildly between loving the film’s audacity and warped sense of humor while others found it to be tedious, childish, and ill-advised. The glorification of wanton violence and hyperbolic gunplay can often times feel icky given the horrific state of gun violence in America, but Free Fire never quite approached the level of gun worship you see in other hyper-adrenalized action films. These are bad men doing bad things to each other, and literally no one emerges unscathed. It’s a grimy, grungy story of thieves, liars, and cheats trying to outwit their witless compatriots. When the dust settled, the blood dried, and the credits finally rolled, I couldn’t help but smile, and if you go into Wheatley’s wonderfully bonkers, ultraviolent comedy of errors, chances are you will too.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 burritos
Image: A24/Rook Films
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