7 out of 10
Brie Larson as Justine
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Free Fire Review:
The heist gone wrong is a great premise for drama, right? It (or any other high risk criminal activity) has all the elements needed: tension, paranoia, built-in intra-character conflict, the ability to sustain both periods of violence and periods of character interaction as everyone waits to see what the fallout will be. The downside is, it is obviously a great premise for drama and has been used a lot. The real trick for the writer or director approaching it, isn’t to make it work (although that is still the trick) but to make it work in a way we’ve never seen before, in order to keep the conflict from sagging due to foreknowledge. Ben Wheatley’s version of that is to shoot all of his characters and force them to writhe on the floor in pain as they try to get out of their predicament.
IRA soldier Chris (Murphy) wants to buy some guns for the cause; South African low-life Vernon (Copley) has guns to sell – so far so good. Despite some character conflicts, mostly because Vernon is the type of person who ‘got misdiagnosed as a child genius and never got over it,’ it looks like everything is going to go smoothly. Right up until one of Vernon’s guys (Cilenti) recognizes one of Chris’s guys (Riley) and then the guns start going off. Before you can say ‘ricochet,’ everyone is wounded and crawling to cover and trying to figure out how to get out of the mess with their money or their guns. And then the snipers hidden in the rafters open up.
For a film premised on most of its characters crawling on the floor and avoiding gunfire, Free Fire packs a fair bit of entertainment into its run time. It doesn’t have much to say about crime or the people who partake in it, except that most of them have very poor judgment. Free Fire is more interested in being glib than in being good, but that can be a virtue in its own right. Wheatley is only interested in the moment directly in front of him and hones his focus to a sharp point. Outside of some necessary backstory, he gives no hints about who these people are or how they came to be here, leaving it to the audience to figure out as much of that as they may interested in. It’s almost the end of the first act before it becomes clear Free Fire is a period piece and Vernon is arming late ’70s/early ’80s era IRA. Without cumbersome distractions, all there are are the handful of people in factory shooting at and trying to communicate with each other.
It’s a technique Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump bring to their characterization as well, letting it out in dribs and drabs. Is Chris as much of a hard ass as he seems, what does middle-woman Justine (Larson) want, is Vernon truly useless? A lot of this is just an excuse for witty banter and cheap laughs, but they’re fun cheap laughs and the cast works hard to make the most of them, particularly Murphy and Hammer as Vernon’s bodyguard. The downside is the characters are largely reduced to tropes they can repeat: Vernon is arrogant and incompetent, Frank is ornery, Bernie wants to beat up Harry, etc. There are plenty of good gags mainly around the characters getting hurt. Free Fire veers heavily into slapstick, but it’s also repetitive. Wheatley has one idea for each character and he is going to repeat it for as long as he can get away with it. A little Vernon in particular goes a long way, but Wheatley seems to think he’s really, really funny, so we end up getting a lot of him.
It wouldn’t be fair to say Free Fire eventually becomes unraveled or amounts to nothing. It is a fun ride while it lasts but loses momentum steadily as it goes along. Unfortunately, most of its best qualities are built into the set up and despite quite a bit of hoop jumping it can never get over that to become something more, nor does it seem Wheatley cares about that. Light entertainment about people viciously hurting one another is a genre art form in and of itself and Wheatley and co. have added an interesting if repetitive variation to the mix.