Quick-tempered bravado and overcompensating machismo are the bread and butter of too many crime films to name. You know the kind I’m talking about—the ones that use sweaty swear words and supposedly crushing tension to pad the running time before an eruption of violence. Hence the brilliance of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a balls-on-its-sleeve shoot ‘em up about an arms trade that goes sideways, turning its archetypal set-up into 85 minutes of the good stuff: confrontation, hilarity, and, yes, gunfire that is spread freely among an impressive ensemble cast. It’s a film so persuasively arrogant that it convinces you style should bury substance in a hole every bit as deep as the six-feet kind that awaits most of its characters.
Set in a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of Boston circa 1978, Free Fire is as sparse with the plotting as its characters are with their polite chitchat. To be sure, everyone in this movie talks—a lot—but only in an attempt to get under their rivals’ skin while seeking advantage in a business deal, and then in an attempt to kill everyone else with smugness in its feature-length “Mexican standoff.”
The first interested party in the evening’s meeting is a pair of IRA reps (Michael Smiley and an unrecognizable Cillian Murphy), who have come to Beantown in order to acquire a small army’s worth of assault rifles for the “troubles” back home. Unfortunately, they’re also relying on some dim American muscle while here, including Stevo (Sam Riley), a junkie with a big mouth. They’re likewise buying from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a South African arms dealer who equally suffers from an obnoxious case of the jabber-jaw, and the even-tempered Martin (Babou Ceesay). Lastly, two bright and chipper yanks (Armie Hammer and Brie Larson) are brokering the transaction, with all the shifting loyalties that could imply.
There are a few more folks invited to this party—some crashers as well—but needless to say, things quickly take a violent turn in the first 20 minutes with bleakly hilarious results. Soon the only thing that’s certain is everyone will find themselves with cover, a gun, and a shot at grabbing the $200,000 sitting in the middle of the cavernous building’s No Man’s Land. Many of them will end up with toe-tags as their receipts for it too.
Wheatley has made a name for himself in recent years as a writer-director with a knack for sharp characterization and quick pacing. With Free Fire, he and co-writer Amy Jump take that to its most well-aimed conclusion. Clearly invoking 1970s B-thrillers about seedy folks doing seedy deeds, and how that also influenced Quentin Tarantino’s earliest output (most notably Reservoir Dogs), this is a film that makes no bones about what it is: a down and dirty grindhouse with a high-concept, taking the best part of its favorite exploitation flicks and extending it to a full running time.
For the most part, Free Fire succeeds due to the snazziness of the script and the gung-ho attitude of all the players involved. Save for a few stray lines of dialogue that get a little too cute for their own good (including the final lines of the movie), almost every character in this film is a gifted smartass who is always locked and loaded with a sarcastic putdown. The condescension everyone holds for the other participants in the deal, even before the bullets start flying, keeps the tone light and the mood buoyant.
In one instance, a certain character can be grieving the sudden death of his friend, and in the same breath, Armie Hammer will be cracking from across the room, “Don’t worry he’s in a better place now. And who knows, maybe he’ll make something of himself down there.”
The most entertaining of these shootists are Copley as Vernon and Larson as Justine. As perhaps the most repugnant and preening example of ‘70s braggadocio, Copley chews the decrepit scenery to even further bits with his vain, cowardly, and exceedingly chauvinistic creation. Then again, everyone in this setting is one way or another a pig, which makes Larson’s presence as “the bird” all the more subversively welcome. Trapped in Burt Reynolds era misogyny and patronization, it’s easy to suspect Justine’s cool exterior hides a cynicism about all of her colleagues—and a willingness to open fire on even the friendliest of faces.
In such a context, Larson appears liberated when Justine finally is allowed to drop the patient pleasantries and pull out the revolver.
As a whole, Free Fire is a good time that keeps things moving, piling on set-piece after set-piece, including a clever use of John Denver’s insipid “Annie’s Song.” However, as a creative exercise, the film itself isn’t quite able to maintain its climactic devious joy and excitement for the whole run time. Despite a number of imaginative visual flourishes to the action, and a few plot twists meant to shake up the monotony of 10 people clinging to protective garbage for their dear lives, eventually the picture does lose some of its high-caliber firepower.
The result is an entertaining viewing experience that doesn’t fully achieve the level of Tarantino madness the movie’s premise would suggest. Nevertheless, it’s a surprisingly original take on familiar material, blasting some needed freshness into the “criminals with big vocabularies” subgenre. And for that, it’s a deal well worth taking.