A handful of character actors and an Oscar-winner walk into an abandoned factory, decked out in the finest ’70s polyester suits and most garish wigs imaginable. They’re all packing heat. Most of them have brought their baddest attitudes as well, the kind of hair-trigger tempers that might seem unwelcome when purchasing several crates of machine guns. It seems like things will go wrong, and quickly enough, they do, pitting a gang of IRA terrorists against a cadre of weapons dealers in a drawn-out standoff. In this film, Free Fire, almost every second sees its well-rounded ensemble ducking behind pillars and firing potshots at each other. But it’s not telling much of a story.
Free Fire comes from Ben Wheatley, a British director adept at mixing grim horror and brutal violence with sly humor and cinematic verve. His last effort, High-Rise, was a grim, mind-warping adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, but one that seemed to intentionally hold the audience at a distance. From its period setting to its absurdly straightforward premise, Free Fire seems designed to have more fun, to offer ultraviolent thrills in a confined setting and rack up the tension in real time. Instead, once the bullets start flying, everything grinds to a halt.
This is not the Shakespearean comedy of fungible alliances and eagerly batted repartee that I hoped for going in. Free Fire is a pure slog—a loud, brutish, gritty mini-spectacle that’s impressive only in its devotion to simplicity. As the action begins, there are the IRA guys on one side and the arms dealers on the other, with free agent Justine (Brie Larson), a go-between who set up the meeting, in the middle. Once those battle lines are drawn, there really isn’t any more story to tell: Wheatley’s film, co-written (as most of his movies are) with his wife Amy Jump, feels like straight-up trench warfare.
The leader of the IRA side is Chris (Cillian Murphy), a cold-eyed soldier type who’s all business. He’s accompanied by the even less charming Frank (Michael Smiley, a Wheatley regular) and dim-witted bagboys Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). They’re buying from hotheaded weapons dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley, resplendent in a tacky wide-collared shirt), who’s assisted by the supercilious Ord (Armie Hammer), the hippie-haired Harry (Jack Reynor), and the gruff Martin (Babou Ceesay). A personal misunderstanding builds to a violent confrontation, and just as quickly as some bags of money have been exchanged for a few crates of firearms, everyone go to war, with Justine serving as a sort of neutral party.
Wheatley and Jump’s overarching storytelling point quickly makes itself clear: These preening men are fools all too ready to destroy everything around them, be it in the name of politics, money, or psychotic pride. Put a gun in their hands, and everyone around them is sure to quickly sustain several flesh wounds, if not worse. Justine is the film’s level-headed operator for a reason—as the only female character, she seems very used to navigating pile-ups of male ego with little more than an eye-roll. Larson is the best thing about the film, but she’s punching below her weight, serving mostly as a prop to back up a larger point, rather than getting to craft an actual character from the ground up.
In fact, nobody in this film is playing an actual character; it’s all archetypes and hairstyles. Everyone’s defined by some personal accessory, from Ord’s lustrous beard to Vernon’s jutting shoulder pads to Harry’s porkpie hat. If you’re making a Tarantino-esque chamber piece, I should be able to name at least one character after seeing your film without checking IMDB. As Free Fire wound from tense beginning to bloody middle to grim end, I still could only identify everyone as the actor playing them. Copley stands out for the usual reason—he’s completely unafraid to chew every bit of scenery around him. While that’s usually painful to watch, here it’s a minor blessing, if only because he’s trying to do something different.
Calling a film “Tarantino-esque,” especially when it’s from as established a filmmaker as Wheatley, might seem cheap. But it’s hard not to long for the ridiculous crackle of that director’s dialogue when watching a movie that’s basically an extended standoff. Wheatley and Jump’s script is brusque and to the point, taking no time to linger on any detail besides where the money is, where the guns are, and which character’s going to try running across the factory floor to try and collect one or the other. The ’70s setting seems entirely superfluous, except for the fact that it means nobody has a cellphone to call for backup. As the bullets continue to whiz around the room, and the ensemble suffers an alarming number of minor injuries, even the idea that this is style over substance goes out the window. Free Fire is not much more than a 90-minute marathon, an ear-splitting exercise that’ll leave you with a headache, but little else.
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