Shots Fired: A Day of Paintball, Explosions and Unchecked Male Egos With the ‘Free Fire’ Team
Sharlto Copley is the kind of guy you want on your side when the shots start flying, though you might not think that’s the case after seeing Free Fire. The first full-fledged American production from UK director Ben Wheatley is a wild shootout featuring an absolute murderer’s row of actors, including Copley, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson (among many others). In a film where every man (and woman) is out for himself, perhaps no one is more self-serving than Copley’s Vernon, a narcissistic gun-pusher who is, for lack of a better adjective, kind of a weenie. But on a stunt ranch just outside Austin during South by Southwest, Copley was far from cowardly on the frontlines of the paintball battle field.
Journalists arrived at Stunt Ranch around 11AM on a chilly Monday morning to meet Copley, Hammer, and Wheatley for a day of BBQ, paintball, pyrotechnics, and various other hazardous activities. (Trapeze, anyone?) The picnic tables were covered in an array of vintage clothing and costume accessories befitting the aesthetic of Wheatley’s latest effort, a contained shoot ’em up set almost entirely in a warehouse, where an illegal arms deal between two shady parties brought together by Hammer’s slick mediator goes horribly — and hilariously — awry.
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After outfitting ourselves in vintage tees and garish button-ups with patterns that would make your nana’s couch cringe, we walked over the rickety bridge and through the woods to meet our paintball instructor. While face masks and guns were handed out, a kid who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old proceeded to explain the rules and how to use our weapons, stopping to yell at one of our team members for firing a test shot into the ground nearby. This kid wasn’t messing around.
And although our fearless leader seemed preoccupied with safety (keep your face masks on at all times, no firing off the field), jumpsuits, protective shields, and gloves were only provided after we asked for them — eliciting a shrug from the little admiral.
While we waited for the Free Fire team to arrive, we played a quick round. I was the only person on my team to get shot and eliminated. It took what seemed like at least 10 seconds for the hit to register. After the initial shock wore off, I felt a pain that can only be described as if a tiny, Smurf-sized MMA fighter with fists the size of a marble punched me in the arm as hard as he could. I fared better than another journalist who was shot in the hand, her fingers bleeding by the time we made it back to the rendezvous point.
Moments later, we were joined by Copley, Wheatley, and Hammer, the latter of whom wasn’t able to participate in the actual game due to a recent injury — but he made for a respectable spectator. One of our teammates was equipped with a GoPro and instructed to follow Copley, while another crew member caught the action with a handheld camera:
Copley was far more assured than his fictional Free Fire counterpart. After spending 10 minutes playing paintball with him, you get the sense that it doesn’t take much convincing to get Copley to participate in crazy stunts — paintball is probably a kindergarten-level activity in comparison to the things he’s typically asked to do in front of a camera.
Taking a page from Vernon’s playbook in Free Fire, I spent the entire game hiding behind a wooden board propped up against a tree, cautiously peeking out to take (admittedly cheap) shots at our opponents. I shot someone — another journalist? — in the head. Remembering the shot I sustained earlier and how painful it was, I kind of felt bad … but then I figured that guy probably shot me or someone on my team, so maybe he deserved it.
Shots flew over, around and past my head for several more minutes, and then, as abruptly as they began, it stopped. Someone was shouting, and Copley was asking if anyone else was alive on our team. I slowly walked away from my hiding spot and he gave me an enthusiastic high-five. We won.
Except we didn’t: A lone gunman on the other team had survived, and while we were enjoying our victory, he was strategically repositioning himself for the final standoff. Someone on the sidelines gave us a countdown: Three … two … one. Almost as soon as they shouted “one,” we were both goners. I was shot in the shoulder. I have no idea where Copley was hit, but it didn’t matter anymore.
Through the woods and back over the bridge, we went to the pavilion and ate some food with our fallen comrades and those unfortunate souls waiting for their turn on the battlefield. Over a round of beers with the Free Fire team, we talked about A Field in England, Wheatley’s psychedelic, black-and-white British Civil War odyssey from 2013. We got sidetracked by a tangential discussion about psychedelic mushrooms, which everyone at the table had tried — except for Copley, much to Hammer’s surprise, and maybe even yours, if you’ve assumed he’s anything like his characters in films like Hardcore Henry and The A-Team. “I am completely left out of this conversation because,” Copley explains, “I’ve never taken a drug in my life.” He begins to say, “I have a line for what I’ll do in a movie,” and Hammer cuts him off. “Oh, we can get you a line right now,” he jokes, “if you really want to do a Class A drug, Sharlto, we can do it.”
When I described Vernon as a weenie, Copley assumed an air of faux humility and said, “That’s a bit strong.” So how would he describe Vernon, the unsavory arms dealer whose ineptitude is thinly concealed by a thick layer of arrogance? “The hero,” Wheatley replied. “Vernon is the greatest man who ever lived,” added Hammer, struggling through laughter while Copley sheepishly nodded. All kidding aside (sort of), he agreed that this Wheatley film — and Vernon, in particular — offered a “cautionary tale of unchecked male ego.”
Halfway through our somewhat informal talk, Hammer hijacks the interview. Just as charming in real life as he is on the big screen, he apologizes before interrogating Copley about filming with GoPro cameras. I tell him it’s okay, I’ll just be over here drinking a beer with Mr. Wheatley while their egos go unchecked.
In the background, a member of the Stunt Ranch uses a remote to set off sporadic fireballs behind a van. A short distance away, someone is setting up a giant airbag for 20-foot free falls. At the relentless urging of a friend, and after five excruciating minutes of hesitating at the top of the platform, and after repeated assurances from the employee that no one had ever missed the safety cushion, I took the jump.
(Okay, maybe I just sort of awkwardly leaned into a fall.)
Free Fire hits theaters on April 21.