Action movie history is littered with classic shootouts. You’ve got Arnold making quick work of an endless string of henchmen. The iconic bank heist in Michael Mann’s Heat. Keanu and The Matrix’s acrobatic gun-fu.
But Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire — which kicked off Midnight Madness at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — doesn’t just feature another memorable cinematic gun battle, the entire movie is one long, drawn-out, feature-length shootout from start to finish. Set in the late ‘70s and about an arms deal gone sideways between the IRA (led by Cillian Murphy) and an “international asshole”/trafficker played by Sharlto Copley, once the shooting starts in Free Fire, it doesn’t stop until the closing credits. It just pauses to reload.
To be clear, Wheatley’s flick is more of a dark, tongue-in-cheek satire about the whole macho “guys and their guns” mentality than gun porn, according to Copley (we’ll have more on that when the film comes out next year). The oversized shootout plays more like you and your buddies going paintballing — cursing a blue streak when they get hit, asking for a timeout, forgetting who’s supposed to be shooting who.
Copley’s an action movie veteran at this point — the South African actor burst onto the scene with District 9, did the summer blockbuster thing in The A-Team remake, and most recently starred in the bonkers, first-person POV shoot-em-up Hardcore Henry — but even for him, Free Fire was on a whole ‘nother level. “This was really relentless,” he says. “As many action movies as I’ve done, the sheer bombardment of gunfire and the loudness of that, there’s really an effect of disorientation.”
Wheatley has estimated they fired off 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the course of the six-week shoot, with 500 pyrotechnic detonations. And for the most part, Copley was right in the middle of all of it, saying Wheatley almost always seemed to put him next to something rigged to explode. “There were a couple of moments that were really hairy for me,” he laughs. None more so than when — minor spoiler alert — his mouthy South African arms dealer character gets lit on fire, a stunt Copley says he did himself, and calls the most terrifying one of his career.
“We had some of the best burn guys in London,” says Copley. “But it was the scariest stunt I’ve done by far. By far.” Still, he says Wheatley didn’t have to talk him into it; he was actually looking forward to shooting the scene. At least until the morning of, anyway. “I was all gung-ho at first, and then when I saw how serious everyone was…” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ ”
It didn’t help that they didn’t need him anymore after the stunt. “They cleverly shot that scene last,” he laughs. “And to this day, they won’t give me a firm answer to, ‘Guys, did you shoot it last in case it went wrong?’ ” Luckily, the stunt went off more or less as planned, no second take needed. Once was more than enough, says Copley. “That was all we had, man.”