Last night, I saw Free Fire, the latest film from the visionary British directing-and-screenwriting team of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.
Free Fire takes place in Boston in the 1970s. We know it’s the 70s because of all the wide lapels, the flared jeans, and the impressive facial hair. In short, everyone looks like an extra from Thank God, It’s Friday. Note that I said Thank God, It’s Friday and not Saturday Night Fever. None of the characters in Free Fire could pull off John Travolta’s white suit. As much as they try to pretend otherwise, everyone in this film is low rent. No one is as clever or street smart as they believe themselves to be. Even more importantly, no one is as good a shot as they think.
The film takes place in a decrepit warehouse, the type of place that is strewn with rats and hypodermic needles. Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), Steve-O (Sam Riley), and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) are members of the Irish Republican Army and they’ve come to the U.S. to purchases weapons. Chris and Frank are no-nonsense professionals. Bernie is a well-meaning moron. Steve-O is a drug addict who, the previous night, got beaten up after he smashed a bottle across the face of a 17 year-old girl.
Working as intermediaries are Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Justine specializes in keeping jumpy people calm. She and Chris flirt as they wait for the guns to arrive. As for Ord — well, let’s just say that Ord was my favorite character in the film. He’s always calm. He looks really good in a suit. And, whenever things get intense, he’s always quick to light up a joint and make a sarcastic comment. This is probably the best performance of Armie Hammer’s career so far. (Or, at the very least, it’s the best performance of his that I’ve seen. I hear that he gives an excellent performance in the upcoming Call Me By Your Name.) Certainly, this is the first film that I’ve seen, since The Social Network, in which Hammer seemed to be truly worthy of the hype that has surrounded his career.
Finally, there’s the gun dealers themselves. There’s Martin (Babou Ceesay), who seems to be fairly low-key professional. There’s Gordon (Noah Taylor), who is a henchman who looks disconcertingly similar to Chris. And then there’s Vernon, who is from South Africa and who is constantly talking and smiling. Not surprisingly, Vernon is played by Sharlto Copley. Finally, Harry (Jack Reynor) is a driver who desperately wants to impress Ord. Harry loves John Denver and he also loves his cousin. In fact, he loves his cousin so much that, when he recognizes Steve-O as the junkie who smashed a bottle across her face, Harry pulls a gun and starts firing.
The rest of the film deals with the resulting gun fight, which is complicated with two mysterious snipers (Patrick Bergin and Mark Monero) suddenly open fire on both of the groups. Who hired them and why? That’s a mystery that could be solved if everyone stops shooting and yelling at each other. Of course, that’s not going to happen because 1) no one is a good enough shot to actually get the upper hand and 2) almost everyone in the warehouse is an idiot.
At it’s best, Free Fire mercilessly parodies the excessive violence of modern crime cinema. When it comes to crime films, most people just remember the shoot outs so Free Fire takes things to their logical extreme by just being a 90-minute gun fight. At its weakest, Free Fire occasionally becomes exactly what it’s parodying. The film’s structure — one night in one location — proves to be limiting. At times, you find yourself really wishing for a flashback or at least a little exposition to explain who everyone is outside of that warehouse. The cast is full of good actors and they all give good performances but the characters are, at best, thinly drawn. At times, it was difficult to keep track who was who. I especially found myself mixing up Michel Smiley and Sharlto Copely. It was all the facial hair.
About 30 minutes into Free Fire, I was already composing a bad review in my head but, by the final shot (and yes, the double meaning is totally intentional), Free Fire had won me over. It’s an experiment that doesn’t really work but it’s so relentless and dedicated to seeing its story to its conclusion that I couldn’t help but appreciate the film’s efforts. When the guns finally did stop firing and the end credits started, I was shocked to discover that, without even realizing it, I actually had gotten just a little caught up in the film’s story.
Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump previously gave us one of the most memorable films of the decade (so far), A Field in England. Free Fire might not quite work but I’ll always make the time to see the latest from Wheatley and Jump.
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