Free Fire *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley.
Starring: Brie Larson (Justine), Cillian Murphy (Chris), Armie Hammer (Ord), Sharlto Copley (Vernon), Sam Riley (Stevo), Michael Smiley (Frank), Noah Taylor (Gordon), Jack Reynor (Harry), Babou Ceesay (Martin), Enzo Cilenti (Bernie), Mark Monero (Jimmy), Patrick Bergin (Howie), Tom Davis (Leary).
Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is 15 year old me’s new favorite movie. The film looks and feels like one of the many Tarantino knockoffs that flourished in the mid-to late 1990s, with the exception being that Free Fire is actually good. No, there is no depth to the movie. Yes, it is all style over substance. But it’s also fast paced and entertaining, bloody as hell, and doesn’t overstay its welcome – just 91 minutes of a bunch of guys – and one girl – shooting at each other and saying fuck a lot. This is a movie that knows precisely what it is, and has no delusions of grandeur. And it’s a lot of fun.
The plot of the film is pretty much meaningless – but is basically a group representing the IRA – calm, cool Chris (Cillian Murphy), hot tempered Frank (Michael Smiley), Frank’s idiot junkie brother in law Stevo (Sam Riley) and his idiot friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) have a contact in Justine (Brie Larson) to bring them to her contact Ord (Armie Hammer), who represents a crazed South African gun dealer, Vern (Sharlo Copley), his partner Martin (Babou Ceesay), a former Black Panther – and their two lackeys Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). The want to buy M-16s, but Vern says he only has AR-70s, and that’s the least of their problems. Things seem to be going okay, until Harry recognizes Stevo from a previous incident, setting off a series of events that will eventually see the two sides face off against each other in an epic gun battle. Pretty much everyone is hit almost right away, resulting in lots of blood, and people basically just crawling around on the ground of the dirty warehouse the trade was taking place in. This in 1978, so there are no cellphones, but everyone is dressed real sharp – like if when things are over, they’re all going to head out to the disco together.
A film like Free Fire depends on just a couple of elements to make it work – basically the cast and the writing, and Free Fire gets both right. No, I’m not going to argue that any of these characters are particularly deep or fully fleshed out characters, but the screenplay by Wheatley and his partner Amy Jump makes everyone a distinctive personality, and then perfectly cast those personalities – so much so that it makes you wonder how many of these roles were written specifically for the actors they cast. The dialogue isn’t as smart or layered as Tarantino’s –it’s more of a blunt instrument here, but it more than gets the job done. And the acting is great. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, but my favorites are probably Larson – whose character is a stand-in for every woman who has to work with idiot men, but cannot say anything and has to hide her thinly veiled contempt for them (wait a minute, is that every woman?), Hammer who is the one bland white guy who actually has the charm Hollywood thinks he has (take that Jai Courtney!) and Copley, who like always is dialed up to 11, but in a movie like this, that’s warranted (I am just slightly disappointed that he doesn’t attempt another of his completely unplaceable accents – like in Spike Lee’s Oldboy, although I do appreciate that many of the other characters can’t place his accent at all).
Wheatley is developing quite a filmography in not a lot of time – I still don’t think he’s made anything as good as Kill List (2011) – the first film of his I saw (I do need to catchup with his debut, Down Terrace) – and twisted itself three times, to show three distinct types of violence. But his black comedy Sightseers was a lot of fun, and his adaptation of High-Rise was appropriately surreal (I hated A Field in England, but many seem to like it, so maybe that’s me). All his films are violent, and obsessed with the cinema of the past, and yet they’re different enough that he’s really not repeating himself either. At the very least when I see a Wheatley film, I know it’s going to be well thought out, and interesting and entertaining. Free Fire isn’t a great film – but it’s a hell of a lot of genre buffs like me, who grew up on films like this.