Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.
It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who cowrote the script together – pull it off, though. Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.
The first hitch in the deal comes when Chris discovers that Vernon didn’t bring the model of gun he ordered. Things really spiral out of control when one of Vernon’s men recognizes one of the men from the IRA group from a barfight the night before. The bad blood spills over into the deal. Everybody’s armed. As soon as one gun is drawn, the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction kicks in with unexpectedly hilarious consequences.
The most audacious thing Wheatley and Jump did was to make two-thirds of their movie a shoot-out. The set up described above, where we get a basic feel for every character, and each one’s dynamic as it relates to the group, all happens in about 30 minutes. Once the shooting starts, it doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Even now, as I think back, it’s hard to believe how entertained I was watching a group of people taunt one other for an hour with sarcastic banter as they try to kill each other.
The claustrophobic feel of the movie only ratchets up the tension between laughs. The main action takes place in the abandoned warehouse, a set that Wheatley said he designed in 3D, using the video game Minecraft. This allowed him to get a feel for the space prior to filming. He wanted to make sure his characters would always be in the right place. This was probably no easy feat, considering the utter chaos that reigns once the first shots are fired. Wheatley said Free Fire was partly inspired by an FBI account of a Miami shootout. He and Jump transformed the idiocy and incompetence of the criminals in that official report into the over-the-top slapstick that defines their picture.
The ensemble the filmmakers put together to fill out this bunch of bungling miscreants is delightful. Armie Hammer uses his preposterous good looks to offset the unbelievable shitheadedness – if you’ll excuse the term – of his character Ord. Hammer plays Ord as a guy who is painfully aware of how handsome he is, but is painfully unaware of how off-putting that knowledge makes him. Ord’s (and Hammer’s) best moment comes as he stares into a van’s side view mirror, rakishly running a hand through his hair between outbreaks of gunfire to make himself more appealing to Justine.
Sharlto Copley is side-splitting as Vernon, the South African gun-runner who is as incompetent as he is self-assured. The movie has fun with the late ‘70s time period, and Copley’s feathered hair and smoky-tinted glasses add to the comedy of his exaggerated accent.
Brie Larson stands out as the solitary woman in the cast. Her Justine is a no-nonsense criminal, and Larson plays her expertly as someone who is weary of the testosterone fueled gun-running world in which she operates. it’s a shame that the script doesn’t give her more to do.
Cillian Murphy gives gravitas to Free Fire as Chris, the deadly serious IRA soldier. As good as Murphy is here, the plot element of IRA members seeking weapons in order to wage guerrilla war back home is one of the only criticisms against the film. It feels much too serious of a topic to exploit for what is such a light-hearted, if incredibly violent, comedy.
The same goes for some of the more regressive slurs used throughout Free Fire. Early in the film, Ord meets the two men Chris has hired to help him, one of whom eventually instigates the shoot-out. One of them stumbles over his words, and the other is holding a bottle of concealer Justine gave him to hide the black eye he got during the bar fight. Ord walks back to Justine, and he blithely says to her, “Interesting choice bringing along a fag and a retard.” We’re not supposed to particularly like Ord, but the jab is clearly intended as a laugh line, as evidenced by the guffaws that rang out in the theater where I saw Free Fire. It’s crass, low-hanging fruit (even if it was acceptable at the time), and only serves to cheapen what is otherwise a generally smart and funny movie.
Those few missteps notwithstanding, Free Fire is a clever twist on the action genre that is 20% build up and 80% showdown instead of what’s typically the other way around. It’s pure release, a comedy that deals in the inescapable death and tragedy of the real world. Just like our parents used to tell us, though, this is only a movie. Part of the fun is in knowing everybody on screen got up after the last take and went home without a scratch.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Free Fire is visceral, crazy, and a hell of a lot of fun. As morbid as it feels to write this, you'll really enjoy watching people try to kill each other.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There's a great, almost throw-away mystery plot element that arises when two snipers show up in the middle of the melee. The audience, and most of the characters, wonder for a good half-hour who hired them.
- Wheatley and Jump play almost every bit of the violence for laughs, but there are a few of those moments that work as anything but humorous. Wheatley and Jump walk a fine line tonally, and they completely pull it off.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- For my next review, I'm going big. Colossal, in fact. As of this writing, I've seen Colossal, and I'm still wrestling with it after almost a week. It stars Anne Hathaway, and the trailer sells it as a goofy comedy about a woman who discovers her movements control a giant monster attacking South Korea. Don't be fooled, it's anything but a frivolous comedy, and I'll sort out my feelings about it next week.