SXSW Film: ‘Free Fire’ blends 1978 Boston with gonzo action-comedy for wonderful results


Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire might be his best movie. That’s bound to be fightin’ words for some of his truly devoted fans, who don’t believe Kill List can ever be topped or who like mushrooms enough to convince themselves that A Field in England is better than a mild curiosity. But after the weirdly cool reception that his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise got last year (I thought it was fantastic), I’m sure this one will be received better.

It’s certain to be his most popular movie, given that it moves at a fantastic and fast clip, has truly brilliant dark humor, and features some of the most truly badass action you’ll see in a cinema this year, but it’s got an absurdist core to all of it that only enhances and highlights the brilliance of its cast and the talents of its director. There’s true brilliance shown all throughout Free Fire’s runtime, and I’m absolutely ecstatic to tell you that you’ll want to see it the moment it hits theaters.

Boston, 1978. A group of IRA members (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and their hired help (Sam Riley, Enzo Cilenti) are looking to buy some guns for the cause. And wouldn’t you know it, a South African arms dealer (Sharlto Copley), his business partner (Babou Ceesay) and their hired townie help (Jack Raynor, Noah Taylor) have some extra guns to sell them. The deal is facilitated by two go-betweens (Brie Larson and a truly excellent Armie Hammer), and things look like they’re going to go pretty swimmingly, outside of a few early hiccups — for instance, the Irishmen were promised M16s and are given AR-70s instead, a point of contention that’s brought up again and again throughout the film. Riley, fresh off of a beating at a Southie bar, recognizes the dude that beat him up as Reynor’s character, and kick off a series of events that’ll put all of their lives in danger.


Praise be to Wheatley’s sound editor and script supervisor: The guns in this movie are loud, powerful and not to be fucked around with, and who wreak so much havoc that it’s amazing that there’s any physical continuity between the shots. They actually cause a tremendous amount of damage to the human body in this movie, unlike like video game-styled action movie characters who can absorb a thousand shots and live- everybody spends the latter half of the film basically on their backs because their legs are shot to shit. And yet it never lets up! The whole damn thing is thrilling and funny throughout, and Wheatley’s work here is truly a miracle. There’s an air of truly beautiful pointlessness to the whole endeavor, and it’s wonderful how absurd the fight and its continuation wind up being. It’s violence for violence’ sake, long after any of the true offences have been resolved at hand, and it’s genuinely silly and wonderful, if you’re into that kind of dark humor.

Hammer’s the MVP of this movie. He’s such a wonderful asshole as the bearded and unscrupulous go-between for the arms dealers and the Irish, and he’s given approximately 40 percent of the film’s best lines. What is it about him being fantastic in Boston-set movies? I mean, he was in Social Network and was fantastic there, and it feels like the dude should just agree to anything that comes across his agent’s desk with a 617 area code in it. Copley is also excellent, and it’s wonderful to see him do an action-comedy blend as well as the one he got famous for here again after a few years of slumming it in some pretty terrible B-movies (I’m looking at you, Hardcore Henry). He’s full of wiry energy, and is an excellent foil to Murphy’s stoicism. Reynor is also excellent as the only true Masshole in this movie, and he comes closest of all the townies in this film to actually nailing the accent. Jesus, though, I could go on and on about the performances here, but I bet you’re most likely going to find your own favorite character or performance and latch onto them instead.

The SXSW audience last night (March 13) was totally enthralled by Free Fire and its gonzo humor, and I can imagine this playing super well with the right audience. It’s full of gut-busting laughs from beginning to end, and full of enough crazy violence to make you wince. It might even also make you think a little bit about the circumstances that these people find themselves in; ideology is thrown out the window, civility too, as everybody winds up being blood sacrifice to the name of the great god gunpowder.


Free Fire, which hits theaters April 21, is one of the best films at SXSW this year, and probably going to be one of the best movies that anybody’ll see in a theater, too. It’s nearly perfect, and it’s super exciting to see that Wheatley’s still got the ice water in his veins.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.