‘Free Fire’ is Free With Bullets, Short on Story


Director Ben Wheatley’s motley crew of fine performers let loose with a wild, rollicking actioner that could benefit from a little something more.

Ben Wheatley is a director who refuses to be contained by genre conventions. His past works like A Field in England and High-Rise share little in common outside of Wheatley’s directing and screenwriting expertise and his penchant for taking civil situations that turn chaotic. His latest, Free Fire is no different. A film with a premise that sounds like a terrible Amazon exchange, Free Fire is a bloody fun time once it gets its footing and takes aim.

Two differing gangs meet in an abandoned Boston warehouse to buy a cache of guns. A series of events, both personal and professional, ends up scattering the group around the warehouse leaving them all to shoot their way out.

Free Fire is an oddball film to describe, as Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump pare down character and plot to their bare essentials. The audience is dropped into things with nothing passing for a narrative life preserver outside of its Boston setting and late-’70s time period. The group are hastily assembled with snippets of dialogue that imply their past histories. The deal is brokered by Brie Larson’s Justine who seemingly has history with gunmen Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer). The other gang is led by Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley), with a stray line of dialogue implying Chris is associated with the IRA. Other than that, Wheatley cuts the string and sets everyone adrift.

The lack of exposition leaves the cast in the precarious position of making the audience bond with them, mainly based on their name recognition and performances. In the end, this works for the most part, even if it leaves you struggling to remember anything specific. For example, Brie Larson stands out because she’s the lone female. Copley is the most memorable because he’s playing the same character he’s honed in several other films — the loud, crazy guy. Actually, this is the most Sharlto Copley performance yet, but it does remind you why you enjoy those performances in the first place.

The other acts all have a brief time to make an impact and in the fleeting moments we get with each, they’re solid. Armie Hammer is fun as the pretentious organizer of the deal who negotiates everything with the formal detachment of a politician. (Hammer gets a great exit scene.)

Once the gunfire starts happening everyone becomes “IIFM – In It For Myself,” and that’s when the fun stuff happens. Despite drawing comparisons to the likes of Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs, the script tries to avoid pointed laugh lines, which might surprise many expecting a script as zany as the situation at hand. Once everyone gets their hands on a gun the movie eschews blood spray in favor of real-world situations that, though short on bombast, give the film a real-time feel.

Characters are quickly winged, and once they’re all limping and crawling on the floor, the challenge becomes hobbling each other further. This culminates in a lot of bullets in legs. The characters all want to escape the warehouse, but have to deal with bleeding out and infection. The film becomes a story of a gang of idiots survival with a third-act that’s nothing short of gross entertainment.

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Free Fire won’t become a classic, but it continues to show Ben Wheatley as a director with interesting stories to tell. The cast is solid and works together, but it’s hard for things to retain in the brain when it all feels so thin.