Whenever you watch a Ben Wheatley film, you get a palpable sense of both his enjoyment of the craft and him trying to push it into new terrain. Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers were subversive takes on their genre, while A Field In England and last year's High-Rise, his magnum opus, were each gloriously outrageous and outlandish, although in the case of the former, it was just beyond its own limitations.
It makes complete sense then that Ben Wheatley would orchestrate a film like Free Fire, which revolves around a group of IRA members purchasing a hoard of guns from a South African arms dealer, only for the exchange to go sour and the two parties to turn their weapons on each other, all of which unfolds within the confines of a Boston warehouse. The animosity between the groups originally arises after Sharlto Copley's Vernon supplies the wrong type of weapons to Cillian Murphy's Chris. But things become much more intense after it emerges that Chris' driver Stevo and Vernon's aid Harry were embroiled in a fight the night before. They quickly re-start their quarrel, which results in one of the duo getting shot, and then everyone else draws their guns, as well.
Ben Wheatley, who as well as directing Free Fire also co-wrote it with his long-time partner Amy Jump, sets his paper-thin story against a cacophony of bullets. Loud, brash, and rollicking, Free Fire has enough gun blasts and violence to entertain, but ultimately lacks the requisite surprises or savvy to be anything more than a frivolous diversion.
Free Fire suffices thanks to a combination of both the energy and vigor of Ben Wheatley's direction and its insanely excellent and likable cast, each of whom revel in being provided with characters that are witty and charismatic, as well as reprobates, too. Particularly Armie Hammer, who deploys the effortless cool and charm that's won him so many admirers in Hollywood, even though he then struggles to the find roles that bring these qualities to the fore. Everything Sharlto Copley utters is hilarious, while Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Reynor are cool and chic and deliver Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump's lines with a sparkling rat-a-tat-tat.
After the bullets start flying, there's an irreverence and humor to the proceedings that's instantly enjoyable, especially when injuries are randomly acquired. But while Ben Wheatley was obviously attracted to such a film because of the constraints of unfolding a gunfight in one setting, this restriction ultimately holds Free Fire back. Once the original barrage of gunshots ceases, it actually becomes a little hard to keep up with proceedings, while Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley's characters embark on nearby pursuits that you're just not invested in. Especially since they're crawling to do so, while the joke that those involved are the worst shots in the history of movies soon grows tired.
There's enough anger, insults, and sudden jolts of violence (with one character meeting a particularly gruesome and gory end in the final act) to make up for these shortcomings. But considering the talent involved and its potential once Free Fire's shoot-out began it should have moved up an echelon rather than stagnating and ending up just a pleasing but trivial watch.