By Nathan Evans
‘Free Fire’, the latest film from British director Ben Wheatley, was produced by Martin Scorsese, so it comes as no surprise to me that I ran into the same problem I usually do with films the legendary director is attached to: I didn’t care about anybody in it.
The film takes place in the thick of the 1970’s, chronicling an arms deal between a group of IRA members and the associates of an eccentric South African gun runner named Vern, portrayed by the criminally underrated Sharlto Copley. Tensions between the two groups are high from the outset, but reach a critical peak when a completely unrelated complication arises between one of the members of Vern’s group and the junkie cousin of Frank, the elder IRA member, portrayed by frequent Edgar Wright collaborator Michael Smiley. One thing leads to another and soon a shot is fired. From there it’s all out war between the two factions. Luckily for the film’s runtime, everyone involved in the shootout are poor marksman, so the proceedings unfold at a snail’s pace and become increasingly gory throughout.
Most of the film takes place within a disgusting abandoned warehouse complete with discarded heroin needles, forgotten propane tanks (natch), and various pointy/ heavy implements capable of inflicting lots of pain. The singular location works perfectly for the film’s intentions (causing as much mayhem as possible on a small budget), but the idea of setting a feature film in one place is a resurgent trend that’s quickly losing its novelty. Between ‘Dredd’, ‘Locke’, ‘Don’t Breathe’, and ‘Fences’ all within the past few years, the trope is beginning to feel more like a crutch than a creative flourish. With that said, ‘Free Fire’ utilizes that crutch well for the most part, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the joke of our protagonists being terrible shots wears thin after a while, and that large swaths of the film actually feel pretty tedious.
Helping to alleviate some of the tedium is the aforementioned Copley. His Vern is the most memorable character of the bunch; at times feeling as if he stepped out of a different film all together. When he isn’t espousing hilarious catchphrases that prominently feature his own name (“Watch and Vern, baby!”), he’s continually scheming of ways to make sure he makes it out alive; with the money and his fancy suit intact of course.
Joining Copley are Cillian Murphy as the younger IRA member, Chris, and Armie Hammer as Ord: the charismatic muscle working for Vern. While on the bland side, Chris’ character is helped along greatly by Murphy who has yet to turn in an uninteresting performance. Hammer proves immensely watchable as well following his complex, underrated turn in last year’s equally underrated film, ‘The Birth of a Nation’. His Ord oozes cool even though his affinity for pot has rendered him almost completely useless as a hired gun. Like Copley, he’s a much needed high point within a cast that’s rounded out by great actors who are unfortunately saddled with off-putting, unrelatable characters.
Falling somewhere between the two extremes set by Copley, Murphy, Hammer, and the rest of the cast is Brie Larson’s Justine. Larson is one of the most sought after actresses working in Hollywood today, but her character is underutilized throughout the film, and isn’t all that interesting to begin with anyway. As the lone female within a cast of misogynistic 1970’s males, her presence could’ve been utilized to create an intriguing dynamic between the other characters in the film. While the movie does touch on that a bit, she’s actually forgotten about through much of it. The few times she does show up she doesn’t leave much of an impression; with one notable exception I won’t ruin here. On the bright side, at least she’s not as repugnant as the rest of the characters onscreen.
To compliment those repugnant characters, the film features some truly garish violence. Unlike them, however, the violence is actually one of the saving graces of the film. I’m usually not a gore hound when it comes to movies (In fact, I usually actively dislike excessive gore. One of the many reasons horror is my least favorite genre.), but here it feels like the payoff to the joke that is the film’s premise. The film takes a sick joy in finding creative ways for the characters to dispatch each other, and the more inventive ones are some of the funnier parts of the film.
The film also has a lot of fun with its period recreation. The warehouse is nondescript enough, but the style and costume designs are quite impressive. There are also some cool bits of 70’s slang and of course a couple of John Denver hits to make the proceedings even more ridiculous.
I didn’t dislike ‘Free Fire’, but I didn’t love it either. While it’s a film that wants to be more clever than it is, there are still plenty of clever bits there. Despite its unlikable characters, the film does offer a few good belly laughs, and the overall vibe is almost as cool as Hammer’s Ord. While I doubt the film can still be found in theaters (it flopped pretty hard financially), it’ll no doubt find life when hits various streaming services and the midnight movie circuit. To be honest, that’s probably how the film should’ve been released in the first place.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5
For more reviews and updates on all things Nerd on Film follow me on Twitter (@nerdonfilm) and like the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nerdonfilm/