With The Boss Baby and Fast & Furious 8 looking like the highest profile releases over the next week or so in the UK, it has been my mission to avoid these ‘crowd pleasers’ for which I have precisely zero interest and instead look to something a little more under-hyped and under-acknowledged. Thankfully, it just so happened that my local cinema kept my kind in mind and set aside its very smallest screen for Free Fire, the latest feature release from British director Ben Wheatley.
Free Fire tells the tightly contained story of an arms deal that goes very wrong very quickly in an abandoned umbrella factory in 1970s Boston. IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) enlist the help of intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) to see through the purchase of a large quantity to automatic weapons from dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), along with many associates from either side played by the likes of Sam Riley, Armie Hammer, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor and Babour Ceesay. After a tense initial encounter, things turn south and the film turns in to a 90 minute comedy action sequence resembling something like an extended, parodied version of the climactic scene in Reservoir Dogs.
Everything about Free Fire is turned up to eleven, from the quirky period costume choices to the heightened camp of the characters to the sheer amount of shots that are fired from about minute ten to minute ninety, and if you are looking for something to simply sit back and enjoy in a thrilling, cat and mouse sense with some added humour, then the film will be right up your alley. I will admit at times to suffering from what I call ‘Storm Trooper fatigue’, the wariness that one starts to feel when 25 gun shots herald perhaps a single damaging hit, but in all fairness to the filmmakers, if any other avenue were taken then the picture really would have lasted just as long as the final scene in Reservoir Dogs. What makes up for the slightly unbelievable lack of accuracy and tactical thinking from the characters battling away in the confines of the factory building is the genuinely effective comedy that runs throughout the narrative. A mixture of slapstick, black comedy and all out farce is used to differentiate between characters, and this serves to give the audience something of a humour smorgasbord that will satisfy them on at least one of the levels.
Free Fire is certainly not the most graceful of movies, but there is something in its urgency and blunt force, close contact action that makes it a really memorable and at times shocking watch. For a film about a huge gun battle, the gore is saved for sparse and sparing occasions, which in hindsight makes those particular scenes even more disturbing amid the base level chaos. Though I doubt the film will attract much mainstream appeal, you get the sense that it could well become something of a cult classic, it definitely has all the makings of one. A great cast, check, a quirky circumstance, check, a short running time, check, dialogue that you will be able to quote for days, check. I am historically not one for action movies, but the small scale nature of Free Fire combined with the great character work being done by all of its cast makes it very different to most films that boast shoot outs as their crowning glory.
Like I said, every member of the cast makes a positive impact on the film for the audience, though admittedly some roles are flashier than others. Sharlto Copley as eccentric South African arms dealer Vernon steals most of the show, with his performance certainly being the most outlandish and caricatured of the bunch. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley bring a real sense of British humour to the film, their characters being the most understated yet revelling in their fair share of dry, sarcastic comedy amidst the action. Fresh from her Oscar winning performance in Room, Brie Larson feels like a surprisingly high profile participant in the picture, and though she has a prominent role to play in the final act, I do wish that her character had a little more to do on screen.
Further fun performances are given by Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Armie Hammer, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti, Jack Reynor and Babour Ceesay, all of whom are given moments to shine. It’s very hard in a film like this, one with a relatively large cast compared to scope and run time, for more than perhaps two or three to really make an impact, but the filmmakers have done a relatively good job of letting everybody have their moment, even if the presence of Sharlto Copley is constantly the largest felt.
Overall, Free Fire is a little gem of a movie in a stretch in the cinematic calendar that is usually taken up by middling family films for the Easter holiday crowd. I always admire something a little different, and this definitely is that. A sharp, well paced, thrill a second type of movie that really benefits from it’s small setting and talented cast. Definitely one not to be missed, if only for the best use of John Denver’s Annie’s Song that I have ever seen in cinema!