Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a pretty straight forward movie. It’s a heady mix of Guy Ritchie, early Tarantino, with just a hint of John Woo for an extra kick. But the soul of this movie is plucked right out of the seventies.
The seventies was an odd time in Hollywood. For a brief time, the old studio system had decayed to the point where interesting voices that wouldn’t have normally made it through the gate flourished. Gritty, nihilistic, and oddly humorous, the movies from the seventies never quite go where you would think they would.
Free Fire oozes the seventies. Not just in the soundtrack, the setting, or how the character’s dress, but in the mood and style of the movie. Martin Scorsese produced this, and you can’t help but see some visual call-outs to his earlier cinematic works from that decade.
The excuse the movie gives, I mean the plot of the film, is essentially a gun buy goes sideways. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA members looking to buy some weapons. Justine (Brie Larson) is the type of woman who knows people who need other people and will, for a price, arrange a meeting.
Justine sets Chris and Frank up with Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). They speak through Ord (Armie Hammer) their version of Justine. What makes Free Fire so entertaining, besides the gun play, are the characters. These aren’t the quirky characters from Ritchie or Tarantino. These are wannabes.
You have professionals like Justine and Ord. You have the business men like Martin. Chris and Frank are the believers of the cause and also competent enough to know when to walk away. But not competent enough to not involve Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).
Just as Martin is a serious businessman but because he’s also black he needs a business partner. Martin is clearly the brains of the operation, but he’s not smart enough to see just how clearly unhinged Vernon is or close to being. To add gas to the fire, they also have hired help Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).
These names and relationships are important because as the movie progresses and the bullets fly the relationships shift. They change for many reasons, lust, greed, and simple good old fashioned assholery. Stevo tried to force himself on Harry’s cousin and when she refused, he “bottled her.” Needless to say, Harry is not a fan of Stevo.
Refreshingly after everyone finds out what Stevo did neither is anyone else. After a forced apology to Howard Stevo, being Stevo can’t stop his mouth. Howard being Howard can’t help but reach for a gun, and that’s the ballgame.
What separates Free Fire from other films in its genre is how it treats gunfire and its characters relationships to it. You can be a crack shot and cool under pressure, but if you’re in a firefight, your aim is going to be a little off. If you get shot you can, unless the bullet hits an artery or major organ, walk it off to some degree.
Moments in other films that would go off without a hitch to show how awesome our characters are nowhere here. There’s a cheerful nihilism to the movie. No one is above getting shot or punched. Easy shots are missed, and simple gut kickings are made complicated. The ‘good’ bad guys don’t fare any better than the ‘bad’ bad guys. It’s a fantastic action packed meritocracy of sorts.
Brie Larson’s Justine is not exactly something we’re used to seeing. She’s not a hyper-competent negotiator nor is she some slinky femme fatale. Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump go to great lengths to balance her out. She’s never objectified, and nothing that happens to her feels vindictive or mean.
Everyone in the movie is actually pretty great, Sharlto Copley hasn’t been this fun since District 9, and Armie Hammer Is surprisingly fun and charming as an arrogant likable rogue of sorts. Larson’s interplay with Chris and Ord have that nice potential for cackling. The movie wisely never allows it to go that far before more bullets are fired.
Wheatley and Jump have a good ear for dialogue that isn’t showy but still funny. We understand why everyone is doing what they’re doing even if we can only watch in open mouth awe at their stupidity. Most people are their own worst enemies, and that goes double for people who choose a life of crime.
There’s no code or honor among thieves. There’s only a suitcase full of money, bruised egos, broken promises and people just trying to get out alive. Free Fire is exactly what it wants to be, and that’s just fine with me. I applaud a movie that uses a John Denver song as the soundtrack to running over a guy’s head. I can’t say I loved this film but I was never bored, and I laughed out loud a couple of times.
I’m terrible at predictions, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Free Fire becomes a favorite of college kids everywhere. It’s violent, profane, just quotable enough, and it clocks in at ninety minutes. Never underestimate the value of a movie that knows when to leave the party.