By Jack Dignan
If you’re after a taut, simplistic, endlessly entertaining and quip-filled action comedy set in a single location and featuring a handful of men being shot in the face by Brie Larson, look no further. Free Fire is the film for you. English director Ben Whitley is not one to stray away from the strange and unusual, his films usually a blend of mainstream appeal and signature indie traits. They’re small budgeted, meaningful and entertaining as fuck. His latest directorial effort, the 70s-set Boston crime comedy, is no different. Yet at the same time, this is a film that prides itself in being drastically different to anything that’s come before it. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Boston. 1978. A small crime gang led by the relentlessly unforgiving Frank (Michael Smiley) wait patiently outside of an abandoned warehouse. With him are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Justine (Brie Larson), brought on to assist in an off-the-books illegal gun sale between a rival gang. This second gang is led by the charismatic, untrusting (and untrustworthy) Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associate Martin (Babou Ceesay). They’ve brought the guns, Frank’s brought the money, but there’s just one problem. They’re the wrong guns. Ord (Armie Hammer) has been brought on to ensure nothing goes wrong, but not even he can’t stop what’s coming next.
What follows this mix-up is a series of rather unfortunate events. From personal issues between gang members to countless derogatory comments, the tension soon rises, and with a handful of extra cast members in the mix, shit is about to go down. And that it does. Free Fire, quite literally, is nothing more than an extended shootout. It’s a single, 90-minute scene that’s executed creatively and vigorously. Witty one-liners and gruesome kills follow, making Free Fire one of the most consistently entertaining films of the year. Never is there a dull moment as each of these characters, all armed with distinct and conflicting personalities, engages in a never-ending shoot up where anything is possible and anyone can die.
Free Fire takes a while to find its footing. The opening scenes, while necessarily to establish the characters and their relations to one another, are hit and miss. Some moments work really well, especially the introduction to Armie Hammer’s character, but others fall flat. They’re not boring, nothing in this film is, but they never hit as hard as they should. The film boasts an extremely large cast, featuring the likes of not only the actors already mentioned, but also Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, Sam Riley and a handful of others. Everyone collides in this outrageous, unhinged and thoroughly entertaining film that, once it gets going, there’s just no stopping it. From when the tension first arises, and after the initial bullet is shot, everything that follows is a chaotic, blood-filled joy to watch unfold.
The thing that really holds this film together is the writing. Amy Jump and Ben Whitley’s screenplay is a bonkers, out of the norm experiment in structure and story. The characters each have their own personal agenda, and while not all of them are given too much depth, you’ll be surprised to find nobody’s brought in simply to be killed. I mean, yeah, some of them are, but this isn’t a horror film. Everyone that’s here is here for a reason, not just to play the role of ‘first victim.’ Their entire screenplay is lavished with dark, irreverent humour, and Jump and Whitley find themselves at their best when the action’s going down. Once these characters’ lives are on the line, their true selves come out, and my god is it funny. Everyone bounces off of each other in the greatest, most hilarious way possible. It’s going to be hard to get some of these soon-to-be iconic lines out of my head.
Amidst the violence, however, it’s easy to get lost in the carnage. Characters disappear for short periods of time, while others miraculously come back to life over and over. It may be confined to a single room, but working out who’s working with who can be quite the challenge. Everyone’s scattered, with no defining alliances, and while that’s good for dramatic purposes, I never knew what anyone was up to. Still, Whitley’s direction almost redeems that, armed with some killer cinematography. Creativity is a must for a film such as this one, and Whitley sure knows how to maneuver a camera. There’s an elegance and beauty to his compositions, constantly able to surprise me and do something different with his material.
As the plot gets underway, and a lot of the characters find themselves shot to pieces, the film does start to leave you with one lingering question. “Is this it?” The ending is fun, if not slightly predictable, but the entire film just left me wanting a little bit more. Still, Free Fire is one hell of a good time, allowing these actors to have some fun in their respective roles. Larson, Hammer and Copley may steal the show, but it’s Whitley’s film through and through. Different is good, and 2017, so far, has been a wonderful year for breaking the norm.
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