Free Fire assembles the tetchiest brand of characters cinema screens have seen in a while. Most of them seem to have gotten out of bed with ill intent, or at the very least, the desire to just vex someone. The problem for them is this film centres on an arms deal in a warehouse so, needless to say, sparks start flying around in a gunpowder pit.
Free Fire comes 25 years after Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, one of the few standouts in this mould. The only others that come to mind are Smokin Aces, or oddly enough, The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Like the former, Free Fire has a ton of characters and when the gunpowder keg, that happens to be 1970’s Boston warehouse, explodes, they start to look and move the same. Characters of note include Cillian Murphy’s Chris and Michael Smiley’s Frank as Irish Republican Army members looking to deal for some assault rifles to bolster their resistance in the UK.
The deal has two middle men, played by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) who introduce the group to Vernon, the chief weapons dealer, played as a deliberately unfunny weasel by Sharlto Copley. The situation becomes more volatile as some grudges and pettiness float to the surface, along with the expected treachery. Of course, some stupidity plays its part in escalating tensions too. What should have been a simple transaction soon turns into an insane shootout, with characters jumping for cover behind crates, pillars and rusting construction equipment.
Our director, Ben Wheatley, seems to be running a tight ship. There are way more characters than the five I have noted and Free Fire definitely qualifies as overcrowded. But Wheatley, to his credit, keeps track of all them, into whatever crevice they slither into. This feels like a trite point but we’ve seen the kinds of rubbish action films can devolve into so I won’t take his attention to detail for granted. But it also helps that we aren’t dealing with the most kinetic of action sequences when mayhem ensues.
Wheatley is probably playing the gun fights for laughs, but it really didn’t work for me. If having wounded guys crawl around yelling expletives and trash talk for 45 minutes to the score of ricocheting bullets moves your needle, then good for you. The pacing lags, which probably mirrors an actual gunfight, however, it does want for some nail-biting tension that this level of ambition demands. The first 15 minutes or so establishes the characters and the expected alliances are easy to decipher. But what if the screenplay had held back a little on the character (because it doesn’t flesh them enough anyway), that may have made for more entertainment value.
I perked up a little when the script became a little more creative with its violence. A few variables alter the character motivations beyond mere survival. A little more flair and juicer dialogue when it lagged would have done the trick – and yes, parts of me wondered what Free Fire would have looked like with Tarantino directing; with Sam L. Jackson instead of Babou Ceesay, Christoph Waltz instead of Sharlto Copley, with a one relationship of substance that could have pumped in more stakes.
The initiated know Wheatley is highly regarded in cinema circles. Of all his work, I’ve only previously seen High Rise, which was intriguing and engaging enough. Free Fire is closer to B-movie fare, to be honest, and I think Wheatley enjoyed his apparent overindulgence. He definitely has a thing for dead end shootouts. But I wondered about the actors, as they maneuver through purposefully unsophisticated set pieces. I hope they had fun too. I didn’t.