Free Fire (2016)
All guns. No control.
A classic case of excellent concept, middling execution, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s Tarantino-esque shoot ‘em up, Free Fire, struggles to hit its target, despite a stellar cast and an elongated fire fight that’s (sadly) no where near as ballistic as it should’ve been. Let’s fire away, shall we?
The story is dead simple. Set in Boston, 1978, Free Fire follows a colorful group of down-and-dirty types — all clad in polyester suits, with most sporting retro facial hair — who gather inside a deserted umbrella factory to buy and sell weapons. Spearheaded by Irish Republican Army members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and his unkempt captain, Frank (Michael Smiley), the duo traveling to Beantown to buy a truckload of guns, the men meet up with their intermediary, Justine (Brie Larson), and her hired-muscle — junkie Stevo (Sam Riley), and his pal Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) — just outside the dockside building. The group is then greeted by a pompous middleman, Ord (a thickly bearded Armie Hammer), who walks the cluster into the ramshackle warehouse where he introduces them to their dealer, the flamboyant Vernon (a scene stealing Sharlto Copley), who’s supplying the goods, along with his right-hand man, Martin (Babou Ceesay).
Things get off on the wrong foot when Murphy’s character realizes that he’s being sold AR-17s instead of the M16s he’s ordered. Tensions raise further once a feud between Stevo and one of Vernon’s accomplices, Harry (Jack Reynor), threatens to de-rail the entire operation. After about thirty-or-so minutes of back-and-fourth bickering, the first shot is fired, with the night inevitably devolving into a wild shoot out with every man (and woman) doing whatever they can to get away with a briefcase full of (easy) cash and their lives.
Written by Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump, Kill List (2011), this free-for-all starts with a promising first act, the mood fizzling about half-an-hour in, when viewers realize that there’s nothing else to this black comedy bar what’s offered in its preliminary portion. What’s more, with Wheatley opting to go for a shakier, handheld aesthetic, and regular cinematographer Laurie Rose, High-Rise (2015), delivering a dirty, muted brown and orange color palette, the skirmish itself is a little hard to follow, particularly when trying to decipher who’s firing at whom and from where. Even so, with the bullets simply grazing the alpha-type thugs for the majority of the scuffle (Benny noticeably trying to avoid offing his characters too quickly), a lot of the film drags, chiefly as there’s little in the way of stakes and even less characterization — heck, the fact that these guys could simply stop the quarrel at any given moment and continue the deal just feels outright lazy. Sure, the idea of a single phone in the building definitely raises tension (the movie taking place before the age of the smart phone), while a couple of gruesome wounds to the noggin nearly revive the almost bloodless feud, but Free Fire, for the most part, seems to be firing blanks, the flick a smidgen low on ammo.
Played for laughs rather than suspense, the goofy bedlam is elevated by a loud ’70s backdrop, with the Martin Scorsese inspired costumes giving proceedings a ‘cool’ sorta flavor — the 74-year-old filmmaker, who knows a thing or two about screen violence, also serving as executive producer. Elsewhere, Mr. Wheatley uses his zany soundtrack choices as artillery, revitalizing some of the repetitive action, with the movie featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Run Through the Jungle’ and John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’— the latter reminding me of Quentin Tarantino’s superior crime-drama Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Thankfully, the terrific ensemble cast fire on all cylinders, each doing the best they can to keep the hour-long skirmish alive. Armie Hammer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), is quite good as Ord, a man who clearly likes to remain professional (sticking to procedure at all times), ready to forcefully take control of the situation if needs be, whilst the gorgeous Brie Larson, Room (2015), looks stellar in her vintage blue getup, the 27-year-old doing whatever it takes to breath life into the spunky liaison Justine, a gal who winds up attracting several of the dim-witted crooks’ attention once the ordeal gets underway. Australia’s Noah Taylor, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), dodges bullets as Vernon’s associate, Gordon, while a borderline-unrecognizable Jack Reynor, Sing Street (2016), is fun as the trigger-happy Harry, one of the goons that initiates the whole cartoon-y battle royal. Last, but certainly not least, we have Sharlto Copley, District 9 (2009), who boosts the flick as the showy, cardboard-armor-wearing dealer Vernon, the South African actor stealing all of his scenes, churning out ridiculous scenery-chewing lines such as ‘Watch and Vern’ — the guy’s a national treasure!
Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley — I outright hated his last picture, the dystopian sci-fi High Rise — but I honestly think that Free Fire could’ve been flippin’ awesome. While I’m convinced that the initial concept probably sounded ‘ace’ on paper, Wheatley’s writing isn’t sharp enough to sustain such a wafer-thin story, and his direction not nearly slick or refined enough to keep all the madcap chaos clear and distinct, the entire experience becoming a tad monotonous after about fifty or so minutes. With that said, it’s safe to assume that Free Fire might become a new fan favorite among Wheatley’s admirers, even if the whole endeavor does fall short of its own crazy aspirations.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie