Who doesn’t want a movie to start and end and basically be one big bang? More conflict (and guns) brings better drama, right? In the case of Free Fire, that axiom does not, regrettably, hold true.
The film is about an arms deal that goes terribly wrong — and because it goes so very wrong, everyone’s arms, heads and toes are getting shot off. Writer-director Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”) attempts to give viewers a contained thriller (the proceedings all take place in an abandoned warehouse), which brings great atmospheric potential. However, it also brings phenomenal risk if done wrong, and unfortunately it doesn’t help the film except for maybe dramatically lessening travel and set design costs.
By setting the film in the 1970’s and following the recent Hollywood fascination with the leisure suit trend (see “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Nice Guys”) Wheatley definitely adds intriguing cinematic flair. But without rhyme or reason for the story to take place then (is a character being a member of the IRA an adequate reason?), even a pleasant — albeit ridiculously dressed — decade can be seen as a minor gimmicky detail. It’s a sad trap that surrounds Free Fire, but the colossal mistake made by Wheatley and his frequent writing partner Amy Jump is the introduction of so many unfleshed-out characters. We see a bunch of faces, we’re unsure of why they’re important, we can’t remember all their names, and when we finally do, our curiosity in them and their place in the story has already passed.
For what it’s worth though, on one side there is Stevo (Sam Riley, “Maleficent”), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti, “The Theory of Everything”), Justine (Brie Larson, “Kong: Skull Island”), Chris (Cillian Murphy, “In the Heart of the Sea”) and Frank (Michael Smiley, “Rogue One”) who want to buy enough guns to outfit an army. On the other side are Vernon (Sharlto Copley, “Hardcore Henry”), Gordon (Noah Taylor, “Anna”), Martin (Babou Ceesay, “Eye in the Sky”) and Harry (Jack Reynor, “Sing Street”) who want to sell enough guns to outfit an army. There is also Ord (Armie Hammer, “The Birth of a Nation”) and Jimmy (Mark Monero, “Blood and Carpet”) and Howie (Patrick Bergin, “We Still Steal the Old Way”) who are doing their own thing peripherally involved with the selling and buying of guns. Trust me, I needed help to piece that together and even now I think I may be wrong.
Once the introductions are through and the rounds and rounds of exploding gunfire starts between them, it is clear the shootout is more important than what these characters are to each other. It’s a shame because there are some decent performances to be found between reloads even though the layers of tension, flirtation and insult “comedy” brought forth from characters like Ord, Chris and Vernon often don’t hit their intended targets (much like their gun handling skills).
Yet although the film’s potential is undercut by its narrative choices and lack of character development, Free Fire still possesses the formula action junkies gravitate towards (especially as it has a vibe not unlike a Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino film). And while I doubt there are enough bullets in its arsenal to make this a mainstream breakout (American audiences will undoubtedly prefer their “Fast & Furious” idiocy to this), one can still appreciate Wheatley’s attempt to massacre genre conventions by foregoing all the pesky plot stuff and aiming right for the jugular.