Free Fire is an intense scene of an action movie, stretched out to ninety minutes. It’s a shootout that takes place entirely in an abandoned warehouse, between different and splitting parties. By extending that premise to a whole movie, director Ben Wheatley explores the fun you can have with a limited scope. Unfortunately, he also discovers the problems you can run into when your concept isn’t backed up by writing or imagination.
It’s the 1970s and we meet a whole bunch of gun traffickers looking to close a deal. Of course, things go wrong, bullets start flying and not everyone is going to make it out alive. That’s the premise and I’m not too sure Wheatley thought more beyond that. The movie feels trapped in the warehouse and not in a good or suspenseful way. There’s just not a lot to do or see once the killing starts.
The action in the movie never rises above fine. Guns fire and shoot people but that’s it. There’s never a great, inventive moment of violence. Yes, the movie is low budget but other cheap action films have found ways to impress. Because the shootout keeps the characters grounded and seeking cover, it’s all very impersonal. When one character shoots another, it doesn’t feel connected. If the gun play was there to simply move the plot along, that would be easy to deal with, but when the whole concept of the movie is based around bullets going everywhere, it wouldn’t hurt for a little style. Heck, most of the movie’s posters have more style! Even the seventies setting is really only there for costumes and lack of cellphones.
The dialog never does more than it needs to do. The only reason characters come across as likable is because we have some fun actors on hand. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy are the straight men of the assemble, playing relatively grounded characters. Sharlto Copley brings his unique brand of insanity and detachment to the screen. He’s not a fantastic character, but Copley injects the role with much needed uniqueness. Armie Hammer, for the first time in his career, impressed me. He plays Copley’s bodyguard and he’s a character with skill and poise. In a movie set in the 1970’s, Hammer is the only one looking to have fun with the decade. His character might be the only stylistic choice with any impact. If he could play more roles like that, I might not think of him as the blandest face in film.
Free Fire is adequate. It’s an easy, uninspired way to pass an afternoon. But it’s not going down as a classic. Maybe a curiosity, or an example of how far you can stretch an idea without bringing real life to it. Free Fire isn’t as stylistic as Smokin’ Aces and the characters aren’t as “out of this world” as that film either. Free Fire isn’t as clever as Reservoir Dogs, the movie it’s most likely trying to ape. The dialog isn’t as biting and it’s missing a soundtrack to breathe life into the the void. In a world where John Wick is the standard for brutality, Free Fire comes across as rather toothless. The characters take hits, but when they start dragging themselves along the floor, the movies slows down with them. There’s a twist here or there, but nothing that affects the plot or how you feel about the characters.
I think given a better director, Free Fire could have been a new classic. The ingredients are all there, but most people can make cornbread if they follow the directions. What Free Fire needed was funny, clever dialog between more unique characters in between interesting gun play. If you’re staring at a TV and Free Fire is on, I’d say let it play. But it’s not something you need to seek out. Watch John Wick: Chapter 2 or Hardcore Henry instead. They bring new life into all that killing.