The idea of a movie about criminals in a room growing steadily more paranoid and violent as they try to figure out who’s betrayed who, isn’t original. That’s Free Fire in a nutshell, although there’s one notable difference between this new film from Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High Rise) and the early work of Quentin Tarantino and his many imitators, it’s purposefully very funny. It’s gallows humour taken to absurdist levels! It’s a comedy of violent errors as our “heroes” never lose their cynical detachment as the drag themselves around the ground with many holes! Watching people slowly kill each other has never been this much fun.
The set-up is simple. Arms broker Justine (Brie Larson) sets up an exchange between a group of IRA terrorists led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) to buy guns from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his representative Ord (Armie Hammer). I know, I know, you’re laughing already. Despite tensions between the two groups, the purchase seems to go swimmingly until one member of Vernon’s crew, Harry (Jack Reynor), spots a member Chris’ team, Stevo (Sam Riley) with whom he had a beef the night before. It’s not long before things go horribly wrong.
So standard set-up, right? Well, as they say, it’s all in the execution, and Wheatley, in executing the script he co-wrote with Amy Jump, knows that who’s shooting who doesn’t mean anything unless you develop actual characters, and there is something appealing about the dissidents of this wretched hive of scum and villainy. More then that, he doesn’t make it easy for them. Pretty much everyone is kneecapped right as thy shooting begins, which means watching Copley, Larson, Hammer, et al pull themselves around the filthy ground of a shuttered factory like slugs. You’ve probably heard about actors suffering for their work, but you’ve got to believe that there was actual suffering here.
These are however great actors to watch crawl through the dirt in an attempt to survive a half-assed fire-fight. Copley manages to rein in his scenery chewing tendencies to be just enough of a heel to give you someone to root against in this free-for-all. Hammer, who’s done some good work in movies like The Social Network and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., does something I didn’t think he was capable of, be funny. A lot of the one liners are Hammer’s and he frequently gets to sit back and react sardonically to the goings on, and it’s often hilarious when he does. Free Fire is not exactly the type of move you might associate with an Oscar-winner like Larson, but she proves herself more than equal to the boys at every opportunity.
Obviously, there’s no surprise there, this is the future Captain Marvel we’re talking about, but what was a bit surprising was how dedicated Free Fire was to the purity of its intent. This is a 90-minute Mexican standoff in real time, and in no way does it deal with anything bigger at play, like what Chris and friends are going to do with their guns, or how Vernon handles his business affairs, or why Ord has a weird name like “Ord” or looks like a viking beatnik. It doesn’t matter. For 90 minutes these people are locked in a life or death struggle, and all that matter is making it out alive. Making it out with either the money or the guns is a secondary consideration.
But as I said, it’s also funny. Sometimes ludicrously funny because of the absurdity of the situation, and sometimes funny because these are probably the worst bunch of criminals you’ve ever seen. They can’t hit the broad side of a barn, which I suppose is a plus because this movie would be over in 10 minutes if they could aim worth a damn, but this is Stormtrooper level catastrophic aiming. Perhaps Wheatley’s trying to say something about the life of a criminal, how their desperate people that aren’t masterminds and are more likely to self-sabotage themselves than be of any kind of danger to the general public. Or maybe I’m reading too much into that.
There’s likely no point to Free Fire beyond watching people slowly kill each other, but it’s immensely entertaining with just the right mix of violence and laughs, and it feels like exactly the right length for a movie like this. Nothing here breaks the genre mold, but it’s got energy and gusto and sometimes that can make up for any lack of originality. Those with the right off-kilter mindset will find a very enjoyable hour-and-a-half in seeing this movie unfold, as Free Fire would have felt right at home with a litany of other Tarantino knock-offs in the mid-90s following Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, but it would have been one of the better ones.