Free Fire (2017)


dir. Ben Wheatley

If you ever wondered what Reservoir Dogs would have been like if all the crooks had made it back to the warehouse and began volleying insults and bullets for the next 90 minutes, you need not waste another second with your fan-fiction as Ben Wheatley's Free Fire has just the thing. However, while Wheatley has talent to spare behind the camera, and in the editing room, he's not exactly on the QT when it comes to orchestrating an exhilarating action scene or writing especially killer dialogue (which is once again co-credited to his wife and collaborator, Amy Jump).

But what Free Fire does have is a gleeful bloodlust and rambunctious charm that carries it surprisingly far.

It all goes down in 1970s Boston, on the floor of a dilapidated factory, where Cillian Murphy's IRA soldier is trying to buy some guns from Armie Hammer's smooth operator and Sharlto Copley's spastic sleaze ball. Oh yeah, and both parties have far too many unprofessional flunkies mucking up the works. Stuck in the middle of a lot of simmering testosterone is Brie Larson's cool-headed middleman, who's more than capable of taking care of herself thankyouverymuch, but unable to prevent all manner of hell from breaking loose. 

Naturally, someone gets pissed, pulls a trigger, everyone dives for cover and the body count steadily rises. It all might sound a bit predictable, but once the bullets start flying and ricocheting off the walls, Free Fire becomes intent on supplying one gruesome twist after another -- to varying degrees of effectiveness. Just know that the primary message of the movie could be to say that it usually takes more than one bullet to kill someone -- and that those bullets hurt like a sonofabitch.  

The most reliable sources of entertainment are Hammer and Copley, both of whom appear to be having a blast and their energy is much appreciated and much needed. While Wheatley is clearly having fun putting bullets in his cast members and watching them crawl through an environment that has tetanus shot written all over it, the thrill does tend to wear off after the first hour or so. But the way in which Copley luxuriates in his South African accent and polyester smarm was a treat that never wore off for me. And the same goes for Hammer's pot-smoking negotiator, and the small, yet nonetheless effective, sparks that fly between Larson and Murphy.

Wheatley tries to make things a bit more interesting by adding a couple snipers to the mix and trying to whip up some intrigue about which person ordered them to show up. And later he aims for suspense by putting a lifesaving phone just out of everyone's reach, but none of the elements really work as well as intended.

But despite it all being a bit off-target, there's no denying I had fun with Free Fire. Perhaps I was just on the same wavelength as Wheatley here, but I spent a good amount of time laughing out loud and wanting to know if anyone was going to make it out of this hell hole alive and how they were going to manage that impressive feat. Thankfully, the ending is a satisfyingly nasty bit of business.

Not that there's anyone to really root for in this situation. Like another Tarantino picture, The Hateful Eight, everyone in this death trap is a different shade of bad guy, and once again, it's what makes the movie work. (In the case of Free Fire's fuck-up flunkie played by Sam Riley, his gruesome demise can't come soon enough.)

Is it an odd time for violent, gun-heavy action movies. The days of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat are long gone and there are few options available for movies to make gunplay palatable in a "cool" and entertaining way. Even attempting this feat can be deemed socially unconscionable and in bad taste. Which is why the antics of cartoon superheroes are all the rage, and why arming Batman with guns is such a tone-deaf and insulting move. If you're aiming for a violent action movie with a high "cool" factor, the safe bet these days is to ditch the guns and give everyone cars instead.

This leaves movies like Free Fire in a tricky situation, but Ben Wheatley is a smart filmmaker and he uses the distasteful nature of guns as a main ingredient in the proceedings. No one here is cool, and the fact that they all think they're cool is a big part of what makes their slow and bloody deaths the stuff of comedy -- very cringe-worthy comedy, but funny business nonetheless. Everyone gets what's coming to them and the movie can have fun, and in this case practically luxuriate, in dishing out every agonizing piece of comeuppance. Yes, Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Smart, I do find you sadistic, and pretty damn funny.