Free Fire is the kind of film that has an irresistible simple story. In the 1970s, two guys, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) join two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) to buy guns for their cause. At the warehouse they meet Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammie), who are brokering the deal. Soon, the sellers, Vernon (Sharlto Copley), Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor), and Gordon (Noah Taylor) arrive and they attempt to close the deal. Spoiler alert: it does not go well.
It would be easy to call this Tarantino-lite, and while the setting most recalls Reservoir Dogs, Wheatley’s effort leans more towards parody rather than actual deconstruction. It is more apt to call Free Fire an ultraviolent farce than it is a deconstruction or meditation on a genre. What makes Free Fire great is the execution. Writer/director Ben Wheatley (his wife, Amy Jump, gets a cowriting credit) have filled it with memorable engaging characters and moments that can’t help but stick with you, even as the ringing in your ears from all the gunfire finally fades away.
The main reason this works are the performances of the actors. Everyone in the film is doing great character work, because if don’t believe in the characters or know what their goals are, the entire film falls apart. And sure, some of the characters are a bit light on detail, but the sheer charm that Armie Hammer and Shallot Copley bring to their characters practically bursts from the screen. They make excellent comedic foils, and I would love to watch a movie about these characters doing anything.
Another major reason is the cadence of the action. While there are lulls where people aren’t actively shooting, those downbeats reduce the tension only to a simmer. Even with a joke or funny character moment filling that space, the tension never fully recedes. They are delightfully stacked in various ways that will unnerve viewers and make it so they can’t just settle in and let the movie wash over. Even with the portrayal of violence in the film, it doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of the actions of these men (and Brie Larson, who is also excellent!).
There are bursts of action in Free Fire that are designed to invite feelings of disorientation and uncertainty. It is a choice that places the audience in the situation with these characters, some injured and crawling around the floor, also trying to figure out exactly what is going on. And it is accomplished without resorting to shaky cam or superfast cutting, allowing us to see what is happening, if not the geography of how it is happening.
My only major disappointment with the film is the overall look. Our characters are writhing on a dirty warehouse floor, which combined with the period piece setting (which seems to have been chosen for the outrageous fashion and the lack of mobile phones) the clean digital look of the film is at odds with what we see. I’m not a film purist in terms of shooting methods, but this is a project where film grain and a bit of wobble would have given it even more of a midnight movie feel.
For fans of genre films, Free Fire is a thrill ride of a film that has only the good parts. What it lacks in substance, it makes up for in pure gusto and just the right amount of John Denver.
Free Fire opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan has been writing thoughtful film reviews and pop culture commentary on and off for over a decade. He spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area. His other interests include comic books, coffee, experimental beer, discovering new music, and books.