What happens when you put crazy gun dealers, Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA) fighters, businessmen and psychopathic below-the-line criminals in a warehouse? Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire” is what happens.
This slow-paced, intentionally awkward action film deviates slightly from what you would expect an action film to be. Yes, there are guns, lots of violence, blood and a crazy amount of profanity. Nonetheless, “Free Fire” is special in that it features one long, painfully stretched shoot-out in which everyone’s survival desire clashes with one another. Almost the entirety of the 90-minute film happens within the confinements of a warehouse, thus following a narrative trope similar to siege films.
Set during the 1970s when Northern Ireland’s political conflict escalated dramatically, “Free Fire” sets off when a couple of IRA fighters led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) meet up in a forsaken warehouse in Boston to finalize a gun purchase deal with a psychopathic gun dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates. In between, we have Justine (Brie Larson), who is to be the intermediary between both parties, and Ord (Armie Hammer), who seems to be a neutral representative of some sort. It all seems to go as planned until the most idiotic feud between one of the not-so-important associates present during the deal triggers a deadly shoot-out that forces both the characters and the audience itself to stay put and try and guess who will be the last person standing.
Apart from functioning as a siege film of sorts, the characters portrayed are so dysfunctional that “Free Fire” could qualify as being part of the “ship of fools” film trope as well. Such trope is a narrative device in which a group of dysfunctional and mostly selfish characters is “trapped” in one single space, battling not only physically against each other but also with their own selfish tendencies. Other films that are known to have done that are Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” In fact, the film borrows a lot of the artistic style and pacing that overruns some of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, specifically two films that end with meticulous shoot-outs like “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hateful Eight.” However, instead of jumping back and forth between flashbacks and the present day like Tarantino does, “Free Fire” uses real-time chronology to depict its story, which means that the story, for the most part, took place in the 90 minutes of the film’s duration.
The above is crucial to the experience of the film because, for starters, once you figure out the trick the film is trying to pull, you are on the edge of your seat wondering how could anyone escape such an imminent ill-fated demise. Secondly, it allows the filmmakers to catch the audience off guard with twists that are puzzling enough to place us with the characters as if we were part of the shootout. And thirdly, it is simply such a relief to break free from the conventionality of the structure of an action film that I was so grateful for the attempt of doing something different.
The cast is quite good most of the time because all of them are rightfully over-the-top and ridiculous – something that most audience members might find difficult to relate to. But in several ways, by having extremely extravagant characters, “Free Fire” is aware of itself as a ridiculous action comedy. Larson confirms, once again, how fierce she is with her craft as the only woman in a group of sexist machos. However, the standout for me was Jack Reynor as one of the associates responsible for instigating the whole charade – he was just hilarious.
However, the downside of having these types of characters is that the filmmakers run the risk of having over-the-top characters that are just too much to bear, which I feel happened with Copley as Vernon, the gun dealer. Apart from the fact that I could barely discern the words coming out of his mouth (he has some broken version of the white South African accent), his character was blatantly treated as the main comic relief of the film, but his flare turned off fairly quickly for me. One thing is for sure: regardless of the fact that we are not to take these numerous characters seriously, this also prevents us from even remembering who is who in the film, which felt disjointed at times and is partly why I believe this film feels aloof from the audience.
At the end of the day, I surprisingly enjoyed “Free Fire.” Even if I believe that it still is a novice approach at doing something innovative, I really admire its intentions and I look forward to seeing what Wheatley’s filmmaking career has in store for us. “Free Fire” is a fun film and should offer something entertaining and relatively new amid the bad films being released in this blue, post-Oscar movie season.