My father, a former Marine, was always confused by modern action movies, because they repeatedly demonstrated a very poor understanding of guns, gun safety and even gun symbolism. Characters in films would often hold their guns in such a way that aiming would be nearly (if not entirely) impossible, people would draw their weapons with their fingers on the trigger (a big no-no) and filmmakers would frequently treat something simple like cocking a pistol as though it was inherently meaningful and not simply a part of the mechanism. Guns, he believed, weren’t inherently “cool.” They were dangerous weapons that needed to be treated with caution and respect.
I think it’s fair to say we have a fixation on guns in the entertainment industry. Look at all the posters for action movies, or even just the official production stills, and you’ll notice that a significant percentage of them feature weapons pointed at something just off-camera. We expect to see guns in our movies. And ever since John Woo threw Chow Yun-fat across the screen in slow-motion, both hands packing heat and firing rounds with suspicious accuracy, we also expect our shootouts to look really, really “cool.”
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire acknowledges the demand for gun violence in cinema, and even our acceptance of guns as an instrument of entertainment. It is, after all, a wall-to-wall shootout. After a first act which introduces all of the characters – each of them criminals engaging in an illicit arms deal, each with their own agenda – an unexpected revelation causes tempers to flare and then shots to be fired. And then shots continue to be fired for the rest of the movie.
The majority of Free Fire takes place during a single, protracted shootout, with name brand actors like Brie Larson (Room), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) and Sharlto Copley (District 9) and a host of other, recognizable faces firing guns at one another for reasons which, eventually, they all seem to forget. It starts out as a stroke of bad luck, two people who really shouldn’t have been in the same room at the same time, but once one person whips out a firearm everybody else follows suit, and nobody ever gets comfortable enough to put their weapon down, so everybody – probably – is going to die.
There’s an inherently enjoyable movie to be made out of that, a sharp and funny and action-packed genre experimentation that merely takes one fun part of a movie – the crazy shootout – and protracts it as much as possible. But the funny thing about Free Fire is that it stops being “fun” after a while. The drama of the shootout begins fully heated, then devolves into a little absurdity, and eventually becomes exhausting and, ultimately, very tragic. These aren’t nice people, not a one, but when you spend enough time in the foxholes with them you can’t help but become attached and find it genuinely sad that their lives have been cut short, mostly due to a combination of bad luck and a disturbingly violent mob mentality.
Free Fire isn’t a cool film about a really long shootout, it’s a rather sad examination of how easily people can fall into a cycle of never-ending violence. You’ll probably have some fun, too. The actors are first rate and some of the scenes are engagingly surreal. But when Ben Wheatley takes one action sequence that we’ve come to expect from all our action movies and stretches it out to the length of a feature film, he gives his audience ample time to reflect on how blasé we’ve all become about gun violence in cinema. You can’t gloss over it while watching Free Fire. As these people brutalize each other for what feels like an eternity, you have to consider that maybe, just maybe, shootouts aren’t so much “cool” as they are “horrific tragedies,” even when they’re just in an action movie.
And then maybe you’ll be a little confused by modern action movies too.
Top Photo: A24
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.