Free Fire (2017)
90 min., rated R.
“Free Fire” is the kind of genre work that one can either see as tight, dark fun or interminable tedium on the screen. The footprint made by anything Quentin Tarantino, particularly 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” is all over this blackly comic chamber piece about an arms deal gone wrong (read: a real-time, feature-length shootout), except that this one pales in the execution stage. In 1978, two groups of characters meet in an abandoned Boston warehouse for a covert arms deal. Irish Republican Army rebels Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are buying, and Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) are orchestrating the deal with their connections to the sellers, South African gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). When Chris does not get what he ordered, finding AR-7s instead of his promised M-16s, both parties get off to the wrong foot. Tensions rise even more when the token dolt, Stevo (Sam Riley), recognizes Vernon’s driver, Harry (Jack Reynor), and has a big beef with him. One shot is fired, and then it’s mostly every man for himself. Who could possibly be left standing?
If there is anything consistent between "Free Fire" and any previous projects by cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley (2012’s “Kill List,” 2013’s “Sightseers,” and 2016’s “High-Rise”) and wife/co-writer Amy Jump, it’s his gallows sense of humor. Not much more than a premise involving a real powder keg of a situation, the film is narratively simple and unburdened by complexity, and Wheatley does carry an absurdist tone throughout here with the dynamic of his cast. The fact that a bunch of people end up nearly dead and/or caught is most likely the joke, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a pass when the outcome is this sloppy. Lasting 90 minutes, the film isn’t taut enough, and instead of escalating and kicking into high gear, it just becomes static and monotonous. The characters aren’t particularly engaging or given enough attention before the gunfire to get to know them or become invested in whether they live or die. Really, they are less characters than they are chess pieces with busy mouths. Once introductions are out of the way, it’s a lot of shots being fired, ducking behind crates and cement blocks, and crawling around on the dirty floor. The sense of geography and where one is in relation to another is never well-established that, for all we know, each character might as well be in a different warehouse. There is very little variety to any of the action, and the scope is limited and claustrophobic without aiding the tension. Even for a ultraviolent farce, it’s not that memorably violent, save for one’s character squishy demise against a van.
“Free Fire” is a less-than-worthwhile genre exercise in profane banter, gunfire, and John Denver music that thinks it’s clever without being all that clever. It has definitely been adeptly cast, most of the actors getting his (and, in Brie Larson’s case, her) day with adding color and snappy, albeit forgettable, bon mots, while being outfitted in ’70s clothing. Only a handful of the performances are noteworthy, however, including Armie Hammer, a hoot and impeccably dressed as Ord; Sharlto Copley, who brings a sexist, boorish charm and bravado as “international asshole” Vernon; and Brie Larson, if only because she elevates everything and her Justine is at least a little more sensible than the men.
Combining purposefully rough-and-tumble but not-very-stylish camerawork and everything else that Wheatley seems overly confident with, the film never really cooks. Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury score is right on at least, as is a recurring saxophone flourish to their music score, and a sight gag involving a skeleton umbrella in the third act amuses. With really no one to cling to—maybe Justine because she’s the only woman and she’s played by Brie Larson, or maybe Armie Hammer because he’s so charismatic and handsome?—the bleak punchline means nothing in the long run. “Free Fire” has a lot of the necessary ingredients for a no-frills technical challenge, as if it were inspired by a stage play, but it ends up just being pointless nihilism without being able to walk the walk or completely talk the talk.