Free Fire is a greasy double bacon cheeseburger of a movie. It is slick, stylish nihilism without an ounce of socially redeeming value. Nasty on principle and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, the new action-thriller from filmmaker Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) takes Godard’s old proclamation— “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”—to its furthest extreme. Free Fire features a girl and an insane amount of guns. It’s less a movie than an intriguing exercise in making a feature-length shootout.
Set in Boston in the 1970s, the film stars Brie Larson as
Justine, an American who’s coordinating a covert arms deal between a South
African weapons supplier named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Chris (Cillian
Murphy), an IRA liaison. There are others involved in the deal—including Armie
Hammer as the haughty mediator Ord—and Wheatley (who co-wrote and co-edited the
film with his wife Amy Jump) unveils each of them as pungent types. Bushy
mustaches, colorful accents, flashy suits: The ensemble takes to the ‘70s décor
like it’s one big costume party, and the broad playacting extends to the
one-note performances. In Free Fire,
everybody’s a two-bit criminal or conman, and the anticipation comes in waiting
for someone to light the fuse on this powder keg of deplorables.
Meeting in an abandoned warehouse, the different parties get off on the wrong foot immediately (the requested brand of machine gun has been replaced by another). Tensions only get worse when one side’s lackey (Jack Reynor) accuses someone on the other side (Sam Riley) of doing something untoward to his cousin. Eventually, shots are fired, and because everybody in the movie comes strapped, Free Fire quickly escalates into a free-for-all.
In its initial stages, Free Fire coasts along on its lazy, seductive period details and Tarantino-esque tough-guy dialogue. Wheatley gives us just enough background on these people so that we can distinguish them from one another once the gunfire starts—not so much that we really have rooting interests, per se, but so that we understand why it matters who shoots whom.
The majority of the film’s 90-minute running time is devoted to the warehouse showdown, as if Wheatley had given himself the challenge of sustaining interest in a prolonged shootout in which everyone involved gets progressively more bloodied. Free Fire never leaves the warehouse, and as such there’s a purity to the film’s simplistic bang-bang-bang narrative. The movie’s not an unremitting action sequence—the characters pause to rethink their strategies or switch allegiances—but the claustrophobic sameness is daring, enveloping, and tedious in just about equal measure. At times, it becomes almost surreally funny—no, really, this entire film is just going to be about characters shooting one another.
Unfortunately, Wheatley and Jump’s snot-nosed script doesn’t pack enough rat-a-tat-tat quips, leaving the actors to supply their own charisma and wit to lines that could have used a punch-up. In the midst of shootouts, people will yell tired gung-ho lines like “Now we’re cooking!” as if Free Fire was a madcap action-comedy—a feeling accentuated by the ironic use of corny John Denver songs during scenes of high intensity. These bracing juxtapositions—violence and slapstick humor, dark drama and cheesy pop-culture detritus—have been a part of the B-movie DNA since Reservoir Dogs. If Free Fire never elevates these tropes, it nonetheless wades into them with palpable affection.
Still, it’s impossible to care much about what happens to anybody in this movie. Larson, who won an Oscar for playing a traumatized rape survivor in Room, carries herself with the same mixture of sincerity and tongue-in-cheek wryness as she did in another recent self-conscious homage to genre, Kong: Skull Island. Her commitment to playful professionalism is the film’s highlight, and it’s a pity more in the cast don’t follow her lead. Copley’s buffoonish weapons dealer never quite arrives at the lovable-idiot caricature he strains to achieve. Murphy lends a sexy soulfulness to the drab Chris, while Hammer practically struts like a peacock, treating the escalating body count as just good sport. Ord’s so conceited he doesn’t seem to believe he’d be killed by this group of inferior life forms, and his muss-proof hair is a great running joke amidst the zinging bullets and human carnage.
Free Fire throws out a couple mild surprises that complicate what’s going on and add a few visual wrinkles into the mix. But the film doesn’t exactly breeze to its finale—more accurately, it pummels you into submission with its increasingly gruesome deaths and bitterly determined participants. Enterprising cineastes could probably make a few interesting video essays breaking down Wheatley’s use of confined space to create tension, and the sheer stubbornness of the filmmaker’s approach develops into its own kind of weirdo virtue. But ultimately, Free Fire is as much whimper as it is bang.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for The New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site