Depicting mayhem with a careful eye for process, Ben Wheatley’s films chart a logical progression from small, niggling disagreements into explosions of unfettered chaos. They use everyday indignities as the kindling for bonfires of discharged aggravation, in which the swift breakdown of protocol and etiquette points to a greater hollowness at the heart of modern society. Starting with 2009’s Down Terrace, the English director’s work has grown in ambition and scale, a process climaxing in the largely joyless saturnalia of 2015’s High Rise, which represented the compression of this style down to its most predictable endpoint. Retaining the professional sheen and big-name actors, Free Fire stands as a lateral move that recovers some of Wheatley’s characteristic manic freshness, via a single action set piece drawn out into a languorous lesson in cinematic violence.
Working with frequent co-writer Amy Jump, Wheatley once again starts with a basic collection of clichés, in this case a pair of criminal cadres meeting for what should be an routine arms deal. Fate intervenes, though, as these ornery armadas chafe against each other, with all the smoldering inevitability of two sticks destined to ignite a flame. They converge in an abandoned Boston manufacturing plant that resembles an F.P.S. multiplayer arena, with each character correspondingly whittled down to a few surface-level identifiers: the loose-cannon I.R.A. operative; the urbane, turtle-necked interlocutor; the skaggy, troublemaking smackheads; the would-be-suave blabbermouth; and so on. Brie Larson leads the ensemble as Justine, a mediator dressed in sleek business attire whose common sense distinguishes her from the mindless masculine bravado that propels the other characters; it’s also a quality that confirms her as the closest thing the film has to a fleshed-out protagonist.
The use of clichés here is as purposeful as in Wheatley’s previous work, indicating both a sustained disinterest in underlying character motivation and the emblematic stature of these rough-hewn personalities, who have all the range and motility of board-game pieces. They’re manipulated just as blatantly in the gory chess game that plays out on the former factory floor after the trade-off goes horribly wrong, sending everyone scuttling for cover. The discarded suitcase full of money sits at the center of the room, the van full of assault rifles parked nearby, creating a simple dynamic that reduces the modus operandi of the action movie down to its starkest elements.
As established in the patient lead-up to all this gunplay, the principals are mostly united by expediency, a set of circumstances which sends the two teams splintering off into a series of temporary alliances and coalitions of convenience. Wheatley has always been interested in how easily the masks of civility fall off when challenges are posed to the usual uninterrupted flow of niceties, and that critique has increasingly come into focus as a partially economic one, with individuals representing the larger cultural and fiscal systems in which they operate. In Free Fire, the outlaw allure of intercontinental arms trading stands in for the supposedly ordered politesse of contemporary geopolitics, featuring a symbolic stable of familiar figures whose surface charisma and stated goals are gradually stripped down to the bare primal urges at their essence. The film uses its setting, an exaggerated rendition of the 1970s, to point to a period of deep societal decline brought on by the collapse of traditional manufacturing, further illuminating the entwined relationship between the horrors of international conflict and the greed-fueled, free-market arena of global capital exchange.
A race for personal enrichment thus quickly gives way to a scramble for survival, as a verbal tangle of bluster and abuse devolves into a brute chorus of grunts, yelps, and groans. The result is a battle-royale extravaganza that approximates the snail’s pace of actual warfare, one in which all combatants share a baseline level of competency, equal access to powerful weapons (each gun given impressive individual oomph thanks to meticulous sound design), and a wide range of injuries to progressively impede their movement. The sort of scene John Woo would zip through in a few intense minutes gets notched down to a slow crawl, allowing these confrontations to play out in an entirely different register, amplifying the clumsy uncertainty of conflict while still remaining squarely in the realm of briskly paced entertainment. Further emphasizing its economic message by playing out in the desolate ruins of a manufacturing center, the film presents a polluted panorama of rust, dust, and rubble, all cast under the grotty shine of yellowish sodium vapor lighting, achieving a sickly color-cast reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Element of Crime.
These aesthetic choices aren’t entirely constructive. The retro color palette and the characters’ clothing reek of a certain brand of nostalgic fetishism—one that dovetails with the film’s proclivity for indulging gangster stereotypes within its admittedly novel concept. Such touches impose an atmosphere of familiarity that Wheatley’s directorial panache can’t entirely dispel. Yet while Free Fire falls short of gonzo triumphs like Sightseers and Kill List, the film still succeeds at its quietly ambitious aims. At 90 minutes, it’s a tightly assembled, nastily conceived clockwork entertainment that functions as both a return to form for Wheatley and a possible induction point for a new style of stripped-down, politically minded trash cinema. A utilitarian exploitation flick unmoored from the demands of plot or character, the film uses it’s barebones structure to highlight the role of cash as a conduit for our worst human impulses, setting up a violent blowout from which no heroism can emerge, only the awkward, thudding spectacle of mutually assured destruction.