In my original review, I called Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a parody of 70’s action movies. Watching it now it seems obvious it’s more an homage to the low budget independent action movies of the early aughts. Then again at times, it feels like a parody of itself.
Free Fire is a simple, straight forward movie. This is not to say it’s shallow so much as admitting it’s not exactly about much more than what it is about. Despite this, I found myself admiring Wheatley and his co writer’s Amy Jump’s ability to give us characters as they are as opposed to how we see them usually.
Wheatley and Jump’s dialogue does the majority of heavy lifting in Free Fire. At the start it feels overly written, coming off more like a dialogue at home in a play. The characters Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) discuss events that happen prior to the credits rolling in a way that feels overly artificial or overly theatrical.
But as Free Fire moves along the dialogue begins to flow more naturally. One of the joys of the movie is how in any other movie these characters would be communicating through pop culture references or having long winding monologues about existential thoughts and fast food. But Wheatley and Jump purposefully rip the poetry out of these characters leaving only the shallow stupid thin-skinned thick-headed galoots they are.
Which is not to say Free Fire doesn’t have wonderful lines. It’s just that Wheatley shows us these dim and vain characters as they are not as they see themselves. Wheatley and Jump’s story is a gun deal that goes south and that’s it. No subtext or any great allegorical flourishes. Instead, they strip the characters of their romanticized veneer and reveal them for the ugly selfish thugs they are.
I enjoyed myself the second time through more than I did my first. Knowing how the movie shook out allowed me to see the little bits of businesses the actors do to help bring these lowlifes alive. Wheatley shrewdly populates Free Fire with a combination of movie stars and beloved character actors. Brie Larson and Armie Hammer, sporting a gorgeous bushy beard, are not only the biggest names but also possess the clearest heads.
So much of Free Fire consists of characters responding to a perceived slight or being hit by a stray bullet. Larson’s Justine and Hammer’s Ord seem like professionals slumming with amateurs. Justine has a keen eye and has a way of sizing people up while also reducing them to size. While giving Chris (Cillian Murphy) the lay of the land Justine nods over to Vern (Sharlto Copley). “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and he never got over it.”
Wheatley and Jump set up the characters and the story in such a way as we can begin to sense the tension but we’re never quite sure how it will all blow up in their faces. It almost becomes a comedy of errors as the misunderstanding and gunfire unfold in a haphazard clumsy way. Trapped in a warehouse all these people have each other; unfortunately, by their own design, it’s because they only have each other that they are doomed never to leave the warehouse.
Thankfully, Wheatley, although clearly enamored with guns, allows room between the shoot outs for the characters to talk. As I mentioned these aren’t deep thinkers but what I like about Free Fire is how the actors find ways to bring life and charm. “Hey Vern, is everybody like you where you come from?” “Vern is a rare and mysterious jewel. Feast your eyes, boykie. Watch and Vern and then go back to your miserable life.”
Jack Reynor’s Harry merely nods. “All right. I’ll see you later, Vern.” His voice tinged with a sort of bemusement at Copley’s Vern who carries himself with a sense of utterly unearned self-aggrandizement. Perhaps that’s why I was so entertained. Often in these types of movies either all the characters are weirdly erudite and loquacious, or at the very least steeped in a particular area of pop culture, that the characters in Free Fire were allowed to be such weirdos and dimwits it was kind of refreshing. Even Reynor’s response to Vern’s diatribe differs as it’s a response of an underling clearly only humoring his boss because as right now there are some six or seven guns pointed at him.
Copley’s Vern is a delight, mainly because of Copley’s own charms and quirks. I can’t imagine another actor playing this part. I guess I could but they would be busy trying to add a level of pathos whereas Copley plays Vern straightforwardly but with a sort of Leisure Suit Larry charm. Vern isn’t a man who you can count on, but you can always count on Vern to be Vern.
Wheatley and Laurie Rose make sure we understand the layout of the warehouse by sneaking establishing shots to help us understand the geography of the land. So, when things start going haywire, we subconsciously understand where characters are in relation to the others. Rose uses his camera in a very economical fashion keeping the stylization down to a minimum.
Free Fire moves at an almost methodical pace. Combine this with Wheatley and Jump’s fascination with having good intentions, backfire and good plans go awry and what blossoms is the feeling of hilarious doom. Hammer’s Ord, for example, is a professional amongst rank amateurs, and yet he’s finding himself outmaneuvered not because of experience or cunning but because of bad luck and jackassery.
During one point after a particularly bloody shootout, the characters take what amounts to an informal roll call to see who’s still alive, while getting sidetracked sniping at each other. Ord cries out if anyone cares if he’s hurt. Someone shouts back with “Put it in your memoirs!” The rest of the hooligans’ cackle.
For almost ninety minutes the bullets fly, sometimes followed by an insult about the target’s mother. But as the ammo runs low, we begin to see a madness to the method. Free Fire is not about thieves with honor or even “family”. Refreshingly, Wheatley, never apologies for them or tries to make them otherwise likable. They’re just assholes with guns.
Next Week: Collateral Beauty