FREE FIRE (2017) review
written by: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley
produced by: Andy Starke
directed by: Ben Wheatley
rated: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use)
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: April 21, 2017 (limited)
“Free Fire” feels like a comic book from the 70s or like action porn where all the porn is action or like a live-action cartoon. If that doesn’t make sense, that’s okay, because the latest film by director Ben Wheatley is less concerned with making sense and more concerned with the absurdity and stupidity of violence, particularly the kind that involved bullets. This is a shoot-em-up flick of the B-movie variety. In fact, such an assessment accounts for 85% of the movie and while Wheatley is a filmmaker known for his proclivity for showing the infliction of physical pain, “Free Fire” is certainly not as dark, mysterious or twisted as his previous movies. That makes this probably his most accessible movie, with a cast and executive producer (Martin Scorsese) that is much more recognizable than his previous movies, one that’s vying for future cult status.
The entire movie takes place in one night in 1978 at an abandoned warehouse outside of Boston where an arms transaction is going down. We know it’s going to turn into a “gun deal gone wrong”, but it’s just a matter of how it’s all going to kick off. There is the obligatory introduction to the players who will, soon enough, take part in an insane cacophony of gunfire exchange.
The first characters we meet are Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), two Brits who establish themselves as the dim bulb comic relief characters to be expected in this kind of movie. They’ll be more characters that will provide laughs, but these are the obvious knuckle heads. They arrive at the location in a beat-up van chatting about a fight Stevo had gotten into the previous night, leaving him battered with quite a shiner. The two of them are to rendezvous with two IRA supporters, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), both of whom have come to work with liaison, Justine (Brie Larson), an American who is hooking them up with another American, the bearded Ord (Armie Hammer), her colleague who arrives alone. These characters seem familiar. They’re the kind who have been doing whatever it is their doing for a while and hold their cards close to their chest (save for the two dim bulbs) and go in knowing what they want yet wary of the person next to them.
The six of them are there to purchase guns from a greasy paranoid dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associate, Martin (Babou Casey), both of whom are met inside. It’s unclear what any of them want the guns for, mainly since it’s near-impossible to make out the thick accents during the first 15 minutes of the movie or the low mumblings of decipherable English the quick line delivery we’re subjected to. I knew going in that the movie resembled early Guy Ritchie based on the trailers, but this early confusion served to remind me of my preconceived notion. The transaction goes south when two other associates of Vernon’s, Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), arrive with the weaponry and Stevo recognizes Harry as the one who gave him a beating the night before.
The atmosphere of the meeting gets heated and in no time escalates into a fury of gunfire, with everyone scrambling for cover in this messy, dirty, debris-strewn location. It turns into a chaotic situation where the men and woman fend for themselves – at first laying low to avoid whizzing bullets and soon remaining down because their wounded bodies can’t move as quickly as they’d like. The result is a massive shootout between Frank’s gang and Vernon’s party with Justine and a couple surprise guests added to the flurry of senseless, mostly comical, violence.
That’s the gist of “Free Fire”, which will satiate those who desire an old-school action flick that’s free of the slick and CGI-laden fare that populates theaters nowadays. The kind of movie that’d make Sam Peckinpah proud and Walter Hill chuckle. At first, it comes across like a riff on Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (or even “The Hateful Eight”, for that matter), but by the time it ends it feels more like early Guy Ritchie (especially with all the lunacy and thick accents) and there’s nothing wrong with that. Wheatley has created a grimy, sweaty and dusty affair, deliberately utilizing his warehouse environment (which he designed in Minecraft) effectively, providing an immersive experience that’ll leave viewers somewhat sore from all the physical calamity these characters dish out and endure.
We know everyone will die in a movie like this except for probably one sole character, but what Wheatley, who co-wrote with his frequent screenwriting partner and wife, Amy Jump, doesn’t allow viewers to get their hopes up for anyone’s last stand. As the end nears, every character is shot up, dead or near-death (not to mention a few who are mangled, burned or crushed), so it’s anyone’s guess who survives and you can tell that’s how Wheatley wants it. No time for character backstories or deep revelations, just absurd, deafening gunfire.
I knew going in what kind of movie I was in store for and I had a feeling it’d be fun with a cast like this. That being said, I also knew “Free Fire” would test my Sharlto Copley threshold. The energetic actor has a tendency to go completely over-the-top as if he’s in another movie entirely, like his work in “Elysium” and Spike Lee’s “Old Boy” remake. As Vernon in this movie, his crazy is somewhat tempered, but it’s definitely simmering to a boil as the movie progresses. Sure, his South African accent is humorously exaggerated, but at no point does he upstage his costars, knowing that there is plenty of crazy to go around, especially with Riley and Reynor coming across like cartoon characters that won’t die.
The rest of the cast is really solid and impressively committed to such physically demanding roles, that call for crawling, grimacing and screaming as much as it relies on comic timing. What is predominately apparent is how much fun everyone is having, especially Hammer’s Ord with his turtleneck and perfumey beard oil. As the lone woman, Larson fits nicely, holding her own and keeping her cool amidst ridiculous, untrustworthy and short-fused men. Although Justine is just as dangerous (if not more) as the men, what Wheatley ultimately does with her underserves her potential to be on equal ground as everyone around her. Still, as an admitted fan of Larson, I’m not going to be too upset, especially since she’s pretty much the only one who can convincingly pull off the 70s wardrobe without looking ridiculous.
All of Wheatley’s films delve into some level of absurdity, from the psychological insanity of “Kill List” to the surreal over-the-balcony nature of his last film “High-Rise”, but this one goes down much easier. The darkly comic “Free Fire” is straightforward in its goal, but nevertheless quite impressive in its choreography and use of the story’s contained environment. Every bullet can be heard whizzing, hitting human flesh or grazing a polyester suit. Just from a filmmaking perspective, I found myself continuously impressed with what I saw.
It’s flaw may be that it is too straightforward for some. There really is nothing to it beyond what it is and that’s okay for an audience simply desiring mindless action. Ultimately, you have to come to terms with how you feel about a movie that’s one long shootout. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, nor was I blown away (pun intended), but I definitely laughed out loud and get a kick out of it.