"You know what? Fuck the small talk. Let’s buy some guns, eh?” So speaketh Chris (Cillian Murphy) right at the start of Free Fire. It’s a compelling argument. So: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” hits the speakers. A motley, inept crew of criminals strides into a rundown, rubble-strewn warehouse. And then the bullets start flying, and the blood starts spurting, and the jokes start rolling, and Free Fire gets going. It doesn’t let up for 90 minutes.
In any other filmmaker’s hands, Free Fire would be an action sequence, not a feature-length film. But Free Fire is a Ben Wheatley joint, which means—as was the case with his horrifically shocking Kill List, and his darkly hilarious Sightseers, and his trippy A Field in England—Free Fire isn’t like anything you’ve seen before. Other filmmakers would’ve tossed a warehouse shootout into a movie to liven things up, but Wheatley, working with his longtime collaborator Amy Jump, digs deeper—finding comedy, gore, and tattered scraps of human decency between all the bangs and blasts and screams. His camera rarely leaves the increasingly bloody warehouse. It doesn’t need to.
This time around, Wheatley and Jump show up with a little extra prestige: Free Fire is executive produced by none other than Martin Scorsese, and its phenomenal cast includes Murphy, Armie Hammer, a wondrously batshit Sharlto Copley, and Brie Larson, who continues to the best part of every movie she’s in. Shot in rich oranges and reds—if the Creedence didn’t tip you off, the palette is an even clearer indicator that Free Fire is set in the late ’70s—Wheatley tracks his wide-eyed characters as they limp, writhe, stumble, and wisecrack their way in and out of cover. Ammo runs low. Bodies bleed out. Petty insults and bullshit feuds become matters of life and death as steely-eyed Justine (Larson), joint-smoking Ord (Hammer), and loud-mouthed Vernon (Copley) cower and crawl and shoot. Justine, because she’s smart, uses a scarf to cinch a seeping wound. Vernon, because he’s an idiot, fashions himself a set of cardboard armor.
Wheatley’s having as much fun as anybody here, sneaking in Looney Tunes sound effects and building up tension, tapping on the release valve, and then letting it build up all over again. Most of Free Fire’s nonstop violence is of the slapstick sort, but every once in a while, Wheatley offers something legitimately gruesome—even more explicitly than in his previous films, Free Fire finds him using violence, both physical and emotional, to fuel a story.
Maybe that’s why he and Scorsese are pals! Or maybe it’s because they have the same sense of humor: As was the case with Sightseers, Free Fire’s humor is jarringly dark, and how funny you think it is will probably rely on how funny you think it is to see people get hurt. (Correct answer: very funny.) “Tragedy is when I cut my finger,” goes the supposed Mel Brooks quote. “Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” There aren’t any manholes in Free Fire. The principle still applies.
More than that line from Brooks, though, the quote running through my head after Free Fire was of a different sort. “I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges, himself no slouch in the short story department. There’s a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of action crammed into Free Fire—and the fact it delivers as much as it does, in such a short time, and with such a simple premise, isn’t only a testament to Wheatley and Jump’s intelligence and skill. It’s also—in a media age bloated with drawn-out franchises and over-serialized television—remarkably welcome. Fuck the small talk: In Free Fire, bullets and one-liners and shreds of emotion zip by—snatching you up, wringing you out, and letting you go, exhausted and exhilarated.