Free Fire (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Written by: Ben Wheatley & Amy Jump
Starring: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor & Sam Riley
Music: Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Release Date: March 31st 2017
The modern film-landscape has no shortage of action movies. From Jason Bourne to Batman, flying-fists, ricocheting bullets, fighting-mechs and exploding missiles, pulse-pounding action films are in no short supply. However, there’s an argument to be made that with so much high-octane action on bigger and bigger screens that audiences can become de-sensitised to the violence and the stakes need to be raised year-after-year. Enter ‘Free Fire‘, directed by Ben Wheatley (‘High-Rise‘ & ‘A Field In England‘) who’s plan is to take action back to basics.
Wheatley may not have garnered much box-office success but most of his projects have received great critical acclaim and that has given him lots of clout in the industry to assemble a terrific supporting cast including Oscar-Winner and future Captain Marvel Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and more. Is ‘Free Fire‘s bare-bones approach to action enough to make it stand out or is bigger always better?
It’s the 1970s and two groups of nefarious criminals gather together, one group associating with the IRA consists of Stevo (Riley), Bernie, Chris (Murphy) and Frank (Smiley) and the other, a group of arms dealers lead by Vernon (Copley) with associates Martin, Harry (Reynor) and Gordon. Overseeing the arms-deal are representative Ord (Hammer) and intermediary Justine (Larson). However, once the weapons are laid on the table a misunderstanding takes place and bullets start flying. It’s a fight for survival in an abandoned Boston Warehouse and no one can trust anybody.
‘Free Fire‘ is about as basic a premise as you can get; a group of unsavoury characters gather together in a warehouse and start shooting at each other. The movie does not try to over-reach as it stands at a brisk 90-minutes allowing the movie to get in, do exactly what it wants to do, and then get out again. There’s not much in the way of theme, character-arcs or pathos but that’s absolutely fine in this context as ‘Free Fire‘ manages to engage through its polished execution and its larger-than-life characters.
While a movie does not need big-stars in order to succeed sometimes it can help as it does here with ‘Free Fire‘. Actors like Sharlto Copley immediately exude a big screen-presense, Armie Hammer has an effortless charm, Brie Larson is a terrific “straight man” amongst all the carnage around her, Michael Smiley is…Michael Smiley etc. These characters are also pretty deplorable individuals and criminals so you can have guilty-fun with their interactions but feel better about that guilt knowing there’s a good chance they’re gonna die in this Warehouse. This film has quite the body-count but everyone gets a fun moment to shine.
That’s one great thing about ‘Free Fire‘; its comedic sensibilities. The film’s comedy runs the gamut from character-centric, shock, absurdist and even slapstick. There’s an awful lot of slapstick here and it’s terrific fun. The film is a engaging dark-comedy as well as an action movie, from its well-chosen licensed music selection, the chemistry and interplay between the characters and the fact that a lot of the humour comes from having no idea where the story is going. It’s an ensemble cast of criminals and anyone could potentially die at any moment from a stray bullet, a bullet that the cast don’t even know who’s gun it came from.
But ‘Free Fire‘ really comes together with its execution. Ben Wheatley has spoken about how he acted out the entire movie in “Minecraft” in order to get the geography and placement of the characters down and that level of planning comes through. You always know where everyone is, what state they’re in (Do they have ammo? Are they injured? etc.) and there’s very little confusion allowing for maximum engagement with the scenario. The pacing is also terrific as this isn’t just 90-minutes of bullets. The first 10-15 minutes introduces the characters and slowly escalates the conflict until the first bullet is fired, then there’s a large showdown as everyone panics before the movie settles into the groove of peaks-and-valleys pacing.
There’s dialogue, follows by gunfire, more dialogue and characters changing positions then more gunfire etc. The scenario is always changing and evolving essentially giving us a 75-minute action scene, all the while we have these fun characters in an unpredictable scenario with well-filmed action. ‘Free Fire‘s modus operandi seems to be to make the action as grounded as possible. None of the cast of the movie are professionally trained, or soldiers, nor do they attempt elaborate ‘Matrix‘ or John Woo-style manoeuvres. They’re staggering through the dirt, trying to stop wounds from getting infected due to their grimy and rusty surroundings, limping, aiming wildly and hurriedly and that just further adds to the unpredictability.
Things are chaotic in the warehouse, people are barking orders, trying to establish who is on who’s side and the entire cast are clearly having a blast with the fun material. The stand-outs are Armie Hammer who is playing a man who is not nearly as smart or as charming as he thinks he is and Brie Larson who is the smartest person in the room and is struggling to co-ordinate with such short-sighted people. But everyone is on top-form here, even if the material is more physically demanding than emotionally.
The set-up is simple but Ben Wheatley and his frequently cinematographer Laurie Rose shoot the hell out of the warehouse (pun-intended) there’s a lot of unique angles and approaches to shooting what could have very-easily been bog-standard gun-fights and conversation sequences. The camerawork is great, the editing by Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump is polished and terrific and the sound-design is a stand-out with every bullet having an appropriate impact. One of these guys could be taken out by a single shot and that is put across through the sound-design. The make-up is great, the 1970s flamboyant, colourful costumes designed by Emma Fryer are a sight to behold and ‘Free Fire‘ is just a terrific production.
There’s not much going on under the surface of ‘Free Fire‘ and if it was a minute longer it may have outstayed its welcome but at a taut 90-minutes it’s one helluva ride. The characters are fun with big personalities and even bigger outfits, the production-values are great considering its modest $7M budget and it delivers fun action with a load of laughs. The cast are game with Hammer and Larson standing out the most and the movie is just an absolute riot. It accomplishes everything it wants to do and then gets out before anyone else can get hurt. In other words, it’s a lot more sensible than the characters it’s putting on screen.
I give ‘Free Fire‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 28th Apr 18