Free Fire is an action comedy from English director Ben Wheatly, set in Massachusetts but filmed by Brighton beach in England. It takes place in one location, a derelict factory workshop, and runs 90 minutes; 30 minutes of character setup letting us know who is who, what they’re all doing there, and why, then 60 minutes of continuous gun play.
The interest is in determining who’ll be next to go and how it’ll be done. It’s like watching a video game of a violent shoot ‘em out as the camera weaves in out of the factory corners, up the stairs, and along the abandoned hallways, except there’s no controller in your hands to guide events, and no one on screen is a particularly good shot; you just watch the whole thing fall apart. Then, abruptly, it’s game over.
No locations or time are mentioned, but from the look of the clothes, the wide lapels, the hairstyles, the John Denver 8-track in the van, plus the absence of cell phones, it’s the early seventies. Boston is also never mentioned, but from the vehicle tags, the kind of characters involved, and the deal that’s about to take place, it’s safe to assume you’re somewhere in the state’s most populous city.
The deal is the purchase of guns. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the seller, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are the buyers; Justine (Brie Larson) is the intermediary who brings the sides together – “I just want everyone to go home happy from this deal,” she says – and Ord (Armie Hammer) is a kind of observer, the guy whose job it is to make sure things run smoothly for both sides. The rest are the assorted crew and support, there to check the weaponry, count the money, and load the crates into the van. It should be simple. It all goes horribly wrong.
“It’s not what I ordered,” states Irishman, Chris, presumably purchasing the weapons for future terrorist use by the IRA. That’s the first conflict. The second is the one that sets things off, and it all revolves around an event that has nothing to with the weapons deal, but everything to do with hair-trigger temper and the need to finish what was started earlier. A character on the buyer’s side recognizes that a character on the seller’s side is the same guy who beat him up in a bar brawl the night before, and things are not resolved. A handgun pulled and a shot fired in anger causes both sides to immediately take cover. And from there it doesn’t stop.
There’s no particular message to be drawn from the excess of gun fire, and no hidden meaning buried in the violence supposedly intended to indicate the futility of weaponry to solve a problem, even though some will probably look for one. Director Wheatly has said in interviews he simply wanted to film an American-type action shoot-out, nothing more, but unlike the current trend of diving into the action from practically the opening shot, he wanted a throwback, one where there was time spent getting to know the characters well enough before the bullets flew. Told with a mostly British cast doubling as Americans – only Brie Larson and Armie Hammer are from the States; Copley is South African, the rest are either from Australia or the British Isles – getting to know the characters is what occurs in the first thirty minutes.
Among the bedlam, the black humor, and the issue of who is firing at whom – “I’ve forgotten what side I’m on,” cries a voice – the shoot-out becomes even more complicated and wild when both sides are suddenly fired upon by a couple of unexpected snipers hiding in the factory’s upper level. “You cheaters bring a sniper?” shouts Ord from his hiding position. “He’s not with us,” responds Chris.
Unlike some TV shows or even other action movies where a crack-shot with a gun gets a hit every time, the actions of these comical losers are much closer to reality than you might think. Official police reports repeatedly show that in a lengthy gun battle with real life bad guys, where trained, shoot-to-kill, officers repeatedly fire for great lengths at a time using bucket loads of ammunition, there are often no hits. So it is here with the buyers, the sellers, and the snipers. Rounds are repeatedly fired, but most miss their targets, only occasionally grazing a shoulder or hitting someone’s thigh.
The real issue that some audiences may have is the sustaining of interest. With a gun battle lasting so long, and with no good guy for whom to root – they’re all reprehensible in one way or another and not particularly likable; does it matter who survives? – interest in an outcome may wane. Plus, as things progress and characters become more disheveled and muddied up, it’s often difficult to distinguish one from the other, The fun is hoping that the characters you really don’t like and deserve an early demise get it as soon as possible.
Ultimately, it’s mostly the black humor and the overall comical dialog that carries things through. When Copley’s Vernon is hit, causing the blood of a shoulder wound to smear his new Savile Row suit, he angrily declares, “I’m provoked.” And when the motionless body of the man there to count the money, Martin (Babou Ceesay), is thought to be dead, he calls out in Python-esque fashion while remaining on his back, “I’m not dead. I’m just re-grouping.”
There’ll be a tendency for many to equate Wheatley’s Free Fire with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which on the surface is understandable – a group of comically verbose bad guys, together in one location, fighting over a deal gone wrong – but it’s a false equivalency. Whereas the developments of Reservoir Dogs were revealed in flashback and spoken in Tarantino’s unique form of theatrical dialog, much of which took place away from the warehouse setting and with violence that came in short, quick bursts, Free Fire is all in the one place with events occurring in real time; character secrets are revealed as they happen, and it’s all set to a chaotic display of duck-and-cover gun fire that never quits.
Though there is one similarity between the two films. You can always equate Annie’s Song with Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Like the Gerry Rafferty seventies hit, after seeing Free Fire, it’s possible you may never hear the John Denver classic again in quite the same way.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)