Free Fire screened at the Glasgow Film Festival. It hits UK screens on March 31 and US screens on April 21.

The Plot

Boston 1978: A pair of IRA soldiers head to a deserted warehouse to buy assault rifles from a South African gun-runner. But complications arise as the deal nears its conclusion. Tempers are lost, gang members clash, trigger fingers become itchy, and shots are fired. What follows is an hour-long gunfight that’s as funny as it is deadly.

Wheatley Goes Mainstream

Free Fire is director Ben Wheatley’s most mainstream effort yet. His previous features – from Kill List and Sightseers to A Field in England and High-Rise – challenged audiences as they delved into the dark recesses of the human psyche.

Free Fire – which Wheatley again writes with long-time collaborator Amy Jump – is a far more straightforward affair, playing out like the Mexican stand-off from Reservoir Dogs/City on Fire writ large, and stretched over 90 minutes.

The set-up is simple – an arms deal between two rival gangs goes badly wrong, triggering a gunfight to the death. On one side there’s Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), supported by their dim muscle, Bernie (Enzo Clienti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). They are there for the guns.

On the other, it’s South African hot-head Vernon (Sharlto Copley) assisted by money-man Martin (Babou Ceesay), and back-up Gareth (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor). They are there for the money.

Somewhere in the middle – though also in it for the money – is negotiator Ord (Armie Hammer) and go-between Justine (Brie Larson).

The trouble begins when one side tries to pull a fast one over the other. It then escalates when guys in both gangs want to continue a bar-room brawl from the night before.

Cool-as-a-cucumber Ord tries to calm both sides, but these aren’t calm people. So the moment the first shot rings out, it’s all over. Weapons are drawn, cover is taken, and an epic gunfight ensues.

Style Without Substance

This is all fun for a while, but it eventually becomes tiresome. Wheatley orchestrates proceedings with style, his bullets injuring more often than they kill, thereby allowing him to play with his characters like a cat toying with a mouse.

His masterful tracking shots take you into the heart of the action, and they are aided and abetted by Martin Pavey’s spectacular sound design, which will have you ducking for cover as bullets whizz past your ears.

But the paper-thin plot isn’t enough to sustain the film’s 90-minute run-time. And in spite of the fact that the script spends the first couple of scenes endeavouring to establish the characters and their relationships, it doesn’t feel like enough. I wanted to know more about Martin and Ord and Justine. It might have made me more concerned about their plight. But with not a sympathetic soul on either side, it’s hard to care about the outcome.

Impressive Ensemble

Yet while some members of the impressive ensemble get short shrift – being little more than their cool 1970s threads and impressive handle-bar moustaches – others are given the opportunity to shine. Riley delivers a wickedly seedy turn as a troublesome junkie, and while Reynor’s accent seems to come and go, he’s clearly having a blast as the hot-headed Harry, which in turn makes him a blast to watch.

But it’s Sharlto Copley who steals the show, his Vernon as obnoxious as he is offensive. He spends the film either boasting or attempting to bust balls, and adding insults to every injury. Indeed, Vernon’s running commentary provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

And that’s perhaps Free Fire’s biggest surprise – for a tale this dark, it’s hilarious. One-liners fly through the air alongside the bullets. John Denver soundtracks the death and destruction, for reasons we won’t spoil here. And macabre humour punctuates the movie’s most unpleasant moments, meaning you’ll frequently be laughing while covering your eyes.

Copley is on scene-stealing form as Vernon.

Is Free Fire Good?

Free Fire is something of a mixed bag. The performances are terrific, but the characters one-dimensional. The moustaches porn-star awesome, but the accents frequently questionable. And the action impressive, though not enough to sustain the film’s duration, proceedings running out of steam as the finale approaches.

All of which means Free Fire isn’t great, but even a minor Ben Wheatley movie is better than most, and if you can ignore its shortcomings, there’s fun to be had simply watching bad guys shoot bad guys, and then watching those bad guys shoot back.

Chris Tilly
At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.