Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Pervasive Language, Sexual References and Drug Use
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley
Starring: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley & Noah Taylor
Ben Wheatley has carved out a nice little filmography for himself thus far. His films are heavily divisive, but have more than their fair share of fans. It’s also safe to say that Wheatley seems to try something different with each new movie. He frightened audiences with KILL LIST, made sick people laugh hysterically with SIGHTSEERS, experimented with A FIELD IN ENGLAND, and adapted J.G. Ballard to the screen in HIGH-RISE (my favorite film from last year). FREE FIRE sees Wheatley entering action comedy territory and he goes absolutely bonkers with it! This film is an adrenaline-pumping, bullet-filled blast!
In 1970s Boston, a group of unsavory individuals meet in an abandoned warehouse to conduct an illegal transaction. Money is being exchanged for guns and the IRA is involved. Through a series of unforeseen circumstances, things go awry and the deal goes bad. This leads to a free-for-all gunfight in the factory-turned-battleground. FREE FIRE has a very simple premise. Basically, this movie is a feature-length gun fight. That sounds like it might be potentially boring, but Wheatley writes colorful characters into the fray, nicely sets up subplots between various thugs, and delivers hilariously awesome mayhem.
I need to praise the hell out of this film’s colorful characters and performances. In a short amount of screen time, Wheatley and Amy Jump’s screenplay establishes who these people are. All of them are villainous to some degree, which makes this a fun ride of bad guys vs. bad guys. Brie Larson is a major stand-out as the only gal (or “bird”) of the bunch, coming off as attractive, smart and deadly. She’s also the closest thing to a “good” person in this story. Armie Hammer is hilarious as a charismatic enforcer. Even when he’s attempting to kill some of the film’s more memorable folks, Hammer still remains likable and fun to watch.
Cillian Murphy is low-key charming as the main IRA member, while Michael Smiley gets in some stand-out moments and lines. Sam Riley and Jack Reynor star as smaller supporting thugs. Their subplot evolves in a big way and also makes for one of the best scenes in the entire film. Sharlto Copley is in fine over-the-top form as a well-dressed gangster who isn’t above bribing his associates with extra money to rush into certain death. While it seems like Noah Taylor’s John Denver-loving madman would play a bigger part in the story, he’s sadly underused and regulated to the background for most of his screen time.
FREE FIRE’s story may revolve around one big gun fight, but its action goes beyond bullets. This film’s various confrontations extend throughout the warehouse as new developments come to light and specific individuals decide to target other specific individuals. A cat-and-mouse sequence between Copley and Smiley is masterfully executed as both cunning gangsters are forced to use their wits to possibly end the other one’s life. Crowbars, broken glass and whatever’s lying around also makes its way into the violence. This bloodbath is executed in a mostly light-hearted, dark-humored manner though. Wheatley’s gangster opus frequently gets the viewer laughing as much as they’re cringing. For example, Armie Hammer has time to roll/smoke two joints in the space of this gun fight and a stray syringe stabbing into a guy’s hand made me wince more than any of the bullet wounds.
Clever dialogue, a strong soundtrack, and the worn-down warehouse setting all add a special flavor to FREE FIRE. The script reminds me of an early Tarantino film, but it doesn’t feel like a wannabe Tarantino knock-off. This movie does encounter flaws with Noah Taylor’s aforementioned one-dimensional character and two shaky-cam bits that took me out of the action. Thankfully, the latter were only used during one early scene. Also, there’s a specific plot point that’s mentioned and then never returned to. I was hoping this discovery would come back in a big way, but apparently this was just a small joke and the film forgot about it. These are minor gripes with an overall stellar action-comedy.
FREE FIRE is another winner from Ben Wheatley and one of the most enjoyable action films that I’ve seen in a while. It’s wildly over-the-top, darkly hilarious, well-acted, and cleverly constructed. The action is pretty much non-stop from the moment it gets going and constantly keeps things interesting, especially as new plot points arise. This is a mayhem-filled action-comedy, in which every character winds up getting shot (at least) once by the time the end credits roll. FREE FIRE is an awesome ballad of bullets and comes highly recommended!