“Free Fire” Movie Review


     Each time a dialogue driven violent crime thriller hits theaters, the comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s 90s films seems all but inevitable.  Now I’m not saying I haven't done the same, considering Tarantino’s work is indeed the measuring stick for the genre he is generally credited with perfecting with his easily recognizable ability to create colorful characters out of lowly criminals who always seem to find themselves in tense and unusual circumstances.  The problem usually occurs when other filmmakers attempt to ride his coat tails and offer up a cheap and uninspired imitation.  And though there are bound to be plenty of people who will compare director Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire” to Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”, I’m not so sure the two films belong in the same conversation.  After all, Tarantino’s violent action is often shocking and sporadic.  With “Free Fire”, Wheatley has concocted a 90 minute film in which the primary action set piece lasts for a whopping 80 minutes by my estimation, meaning nearly every interaction with the characters begins and ends with a bullet, making for some interesting banter in between.

     Wheatley and his co-screenwriter, Amy Jump waste no time setting up the premise and getting the entire cast together in the same room.  A deal maker named Ord (Armie Hammer) sets up a transaction between two gangs in late 1970s Boston.  On one side, we have a group led by Chris (Cillian Murphy), who represents a contingent from Ireland looking to buy automatic weapons for their home country.  On the other side is a wormy oddball South African arms dealer called Vernon (Sharlto Copley), who is as irritating as he is abrasive toward his adversaries which doesn't lend to the transaction going smoothly in the first place.  Chris is escorted into a prearranged meeting place, an old abandoned warehouse, by Ord and another deal maker named Justine (Brie Larson), who doesn't seem to have a function within the scope of the arms deal, or does she?

     What seems like what should be a relatively smooth exchange of course turns ugly when the two drivers of the opposing groups turn out to know each other from a run in they had the night before.  And that is all it takes for the situation to blow up, as a fist fight turns into a gun fight with each respective side backing up their man and the deal makers finding themselves in the cross fire.  To be sure, Wheatley has come up with an inventive concept here.  When the bullets begin to fly, the expectation is clearly that the battle will last a short time, some people will be killed, and the action will move on in a different location after some kind of regrouping.  But that’s not what happens.  Instead, Wheatley stages a gun battle that lasts for the next hour plus, bringing us up close and personal with each character as they deal with various gun shot woulds to their extremities, and attempt to reload their weapons and find some way to target and kill those on the other side.  In effect, the warehouse that serves as the setting for the entire film functions as a sort of paint ball arena with numerous forms of cover and concealment as the players crawl around attempting to gain the upper hand.  Of course, the film isn’t depicting a paint ball game, but rather an ever evolving game of cat and mouse in which the characters converse with one another in the same moments they are firing at each other.

     It’s clear why each actor signed up for their roles, as all involved looks as though they had a lot of fun.  Wheatley and Jump write in plenty of comedic moments for several of the characters to take advantage of, giving some of the juiciest one liners to Hammer and Larson during the film’s better scenes.  Shooting the entire film inside of a warehouse may not seem novel, but it certainly works for the material and reminded me of last year’s 2015’s “Green Room” with the way the filmmakers successfully created suspense and shock in such a close quarters environment.  One glaring issue with the film is Copley, who starred previously in a trio of Neill Blomkamp films including “District 9”,  as he plays Vernon a bit over the top to the point he’s just not a believable character and in certain scenes greatly detracts from the other actors who play their roles a lot more straight forward.

     Instead of relying on the snappy dialogue associated with many of the aforementioned Tarantino films, Wheatley instead puts his characters through a literal war of attrition. With each and every one of them being wounded early on, none of them can exactly just get up and run away.  Not to mention there are a few twists in store which heighten the stress level of all involved and sometimes make each other question who is on whose side.  If anything, Wheatley’s film will keep you guessing in that regard and delivers quite a visual punch while doing it.  GRADE: B