A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2017


2017, R, 90 mins.


Cillian Murphy as Chris  /  Brie Larson as Justine  /  Armie Hammer as Ord  /  Jack Reynor as Harry  /  Michael Smiley as Frank  /  Sharlto Copley as Vernon  /  Noah Taylor as Gordon  /  Sam Riley as Stevo  /  Enzo Cilenti as Bernie  /  Babou Ceesay as Martin

Directed by Ben Wheatley  /  Written by Wheatley and Amy Jump



Remember back in the early to mid 1990's when Quentin Tarantino burst onto the movie scene with RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, which showcased his highly unique amalgam of blood curdling violence and poetically verbose and pop culture riffing criminal degenerates? 

I know.  I do too.  Good times. 

Unfortunately, with the rise of Tarantino also came a depressing rise of films that were trying to capitalize on and appropriate his films' wonderful macabre and then trendsetting style, which unavoidably leads me to the new action-comedy FREE FIRE.  Ben Wheatley's (HIGH RISE) latest film certainly displays a fierce never-look-back gusto that's refreshing, not to mention that its impressively minimalist story design and execution is nifty (two groups of lowlifes meet in an abandoned warehouse to do a weapons deal...and it goes south real fast...that's about it).  Yet, despite the film's brazen edge and spirit and a strongly assembled cast, FREE FIRE never fully emerges as a wholly original film.  If anything, it feels like an antiquated by-product of that aforementioned cinematic era that had filmmakers trying to recapture and re-brand the Tarantino formula, often with middling results. 



The plot to this film, as alluded to earlier, is about as bare bones as it gets.  FREE FIRE opens in 1970's Boston (a somewhat unnecessary period only made necessary by one key plot point that requires characters not having access to smart phones to get them out of a very hairy predicament) and introduces us to all of its key characters rather swiftly.  A gun deal is about to go down in a grimy and grungy warehouse, with the buyers being represented by two members of the IRA, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), whom are both flanked by two inexcusably clumsy oafs, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).  The sellers show up with prized goods, made up of the motormouthed and twitchy Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his partners Harry (Jack Reynor), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Martin (Babou Ceesay).  The middleman brokering the deal is Ord (Armie Hammer) with assistance by Justine (Brie Larson, the only female in this testosterone laced cast).   

The deal...well...doesn't go well.  Firstly, Chris lambastes Vernon for bringing the wrong weapons originally specified.  Secondly, and worst of all, a verbal jousting match between Harry and Bernie regarding what he did or didn't do to Harry's female cousin erupts into bullet spraying bloodshed, which consequently leads to both the buyers and sellers quickly seeking cover from each other.  The rest of FREE FIRE is ostensibly one long standoff between both parties hurling insults when they're not wounding each other to the point where they all begin to crawl around on the ground like infants.  Seeing that no end is apparently in sight, both parties begin to realize the danger of their situation with the possibilities of no one emerging from the warehouse alive when the literal and figurative smoke clears. 

FREE FIRE makes splendid usage of its wide collared and porn stached adorned disco era rather well, even though, as mentioned, it's mostly creatively unnecessary (the film could have taken place just as easily in the present).  Nevertheless, Wheatley and his cast display great relish in adopting the look and feel of the time period.  And speaking of the cast, Wheatley has gathered together an impeccable one with most of them bringing their own unique brand of idiosyncratic charm to their disreputable characters.  Sharlto Copley is the film's standout, bringing his characteristic brand of unpredictable comic edge to Vernon that's pretty infectious.  I also liked Armie Hammer's turn as the deadpanning Ord, who seems remarkably assured and level headed considering the mayhem that transpiring around him.  Also worth mentioning is Jack Reynor (so good in the best film of last year in SING STREET), who does a remarkably decent job playing up to his character's rampant and unhinged hooliganism. 

FREE FIRE is 90 per cent action, which gives Wheatley the thorny task of making one gunfire exchange after the other feel invigoratingly different from what transpired beforehand.  Initially, creating some semblance of spatial geography with all of the enemy combatants seems a bit chaotically engineered by Wheatley, but as the film progresses and finds its aesthetic groove he crafts some grizzly and shockingly funny moments at the expense of the character's intense pain and suffering.  Part of the dark and twisted humor of FREE FIRE comes in the form of showing all of its characters rolling on the ground in agony from their bullet wounds, which gives the film a perverse slapstick edge that's hard not to laugh at.  I've never seen an action film before with as many people crawling away from and shooting each other as opposed to running and shooting.   

FREE FIRE free falls, though, very early on in the sense that, deep down, all of its characters are very poorly defined and are given very little embellishment beyond personality quirks.  As a direct result of there being nearly zero character development on display, I found it increasingly hard to really give a damn about anyone in FREE FIRE and whether or not any one key player would survive.  As an exercise in savage comic violence, Wheatley certainly crafts an assured piece of visceral filmmaking, but it's really all for naught when the people that populate the film unavoidably become bullet riddled props at the service of the film's barbarism (Larson in particular, a recent Oscar winner for ROOM, is disappointingly squandered here).  For a film that's a mercifully short 90 minutes, it's disheartening to experience its protracted shootout making the enterprise feel twice as long.  FREE FIRE comes across more as a soulless endurance test than it does an exhilaratingly swift and enjoyable action thriller.   

Rather perplexingly, FREE FIRE was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who has certainly made his fair share of violent pictures featuring scumbag criminals.  Yet, I struggled throughout FREE FIRE wondering what was his overall attraction to this bare bones material.  That, and Wheatley's film, when all is said and done, is just a retooled RESERVOIR DOGS that certainly thinks its as self-referentially hip and cool as anything Tarantino did in the early stages of his career, but unfortunately woefully lacks his innovative panache.  FREE FIRE has some pulpy energy, a few stalwart performances, and a handful of crackerjack action sequences that deliver, but overall the film is dramatically hollow and left me feeling empty as I left the cinema.  

It also made me want to rush home and take a long hot shower, which I'm not altogether sure was the intended effect.   


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