Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Premise: Set in 1978, a group of criminals meet with a crew of gun runners in an abandoned warehouse. When the deal falls apart the two gangs engage in a shootout.
What Works: Free Fire comes from filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who previously helmed movies like Sightseers and Kill List. Wheatley has a distinct filmmaking style and Free Fire is similar to his other pictures in the way it combines violence with a dark sense of absurd humor. This picture is primarily an action picture and it comes in the middle of a renaissance in practical shoot-’em-ups as seen in John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Free Fire isn’t as showy as those films but it is distinguished in its own right. When the meeting between the criminal parties turns violent, the characters scatter around the room and huddle close to the ground behind crates and concrete pillars while exchanging bouts of gun fire. Nearly the entire picture takes place inside of a warehouse with a lot of continuous action. What is so impressive about Free Fire is the way that it manages and sustains the action. A lot of shootouts in Hollywood action pictures tend to occur on the go and they only last a few minutes. Free Fire mostly consists of one extended set piece. That creates a unique challenge for the filmmakers; they are required to give each of the characters things to do, cut equally between them, and maintain the continuity of the action. That’s done terrifically in this movie. One of the risks of a film like this is that it can become overwhelming to the viewer. The filmmakers don’t barrage us with action. In fact, most of the movie is modestly scaled with straightforward exchanges of gunfire as opposed to over the top acrobatics. The moviemakers maintain a credible scale; the characters get hurt and the wounds impact their ability to keep fighting. That makes the characters of Free Fire quite different from the indestructible action heroes of comic book movies or the hard body action pictures of the 1980s and 90s starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. If anything, Free Fire most recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Like that movie, Free Fire is about criminals in a confined space who turn on each other but it also has witty dialogue and a sense of humor. The characters are eccentric and unique; even though we don’t get a lot of time with them before the shooting begins, the filmmakers do an adequate job of establishing each person’s disposition and their character flaws drive the story and incite the violence in ways that don’t feel forced. The mix of gunplay and humor is managed well and the tone is just right throughout the picture. Of note is the performance by Armie Hammer as one of the more glib member of gun running crew. Hammer gets many of the best lines in the movie and his character’s allegiance is uncertain in a way that adds to the drama.
What Doesn’t: Free Fire is stripped down to a sleek but coherent piece of action filmmaking. However, what the movie gains in perspicuity it loses in theme. A movie like this, with all the action nearly continuous and taking place in a confined space, doesn’t leave much room to develop ideas. Free Fire is about a criminal business deal gone bad and the allegiances between the characters are often tenuous with some of the shooters oscillating between the different factions. The film attempts to be a little more complex than it’s able to support. There are double crosses and some surprises but they don’t carry much dramatic weight because the narrow scope of the movie doesn’t have the space to ramp up to those moments. That’s best evidenced by the twist at the end of the picture. Watching the film closely, the final reveal is set up but the picture doesn’t build up to it and the reversal doesn’t have much of an impact.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurette.
Bottom Line: Free Fire is an impressive work of action filmmaking punched up by an absurd sense of humor. It’s a sleek and efficient movie with colorful characters and a grounded approach to its violence.
Episode: #665 (September 17, 2017)