While Free Fire is ultimately Ben Wheatley’s fourth straight film that frustrates as much as it entertains – following the riveting one-two punch of Down Terrace and Kill List – this fast-paced homage to Ringo Lam and Quentin Tarantino is nevertheless a moderately entertaining single-location thriller, girded by a game, top-drawer ensemble cast.
In Boston, Justine (Brie Larson) has set up an arms deal for two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley), buying from the quick-tempered Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and suave Ord (Armie Hammer), but when a disagreement breaks out between the two larger groups, gun fire is exchanged, and that’s just the beginning.
Wheatley’s film wears its influences on its sleeve and makes no bones about essentially being a 90-minute tip of the hat to his genre forebears. From the deal gone wrong through to the warehouse setting, the shootouts, the anxiety and the off-kilter comedy, many will pair this to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (which was of course itself a copy of City on Fire). The main divergence point is that Free Fire is far, far more action-orientated.
For all of the film’s flaws and dubious line-towing between plagiarism and homage, it does employ an entertaining use of tone, rattling through witty one-liners that see Copley and Hammer giving easily their best performances in many years. Many will be disappointed, however, to learn that Oscar winner Brie Larson is cruelly underserved as the femme fatale, spending a ton of time off-screen and her arc through the film taking the most pat, predictable route possible. Rounding out the cast are the solid Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Enzo Cilenti as the “lesser” members of the respective groups.
Action-wise, the pic is more a mixed bag; Wheatley does a terrible job mapping out the warehouse space, stitching together repetitive, largely close-up shots of bullets firing and impacting, but rarely providing context for where they land in the overall picture. This might be intentional on the filmmaker’s part, to heighten viewer identification with the disorientated characters, but it ultimately wastes so much set-piece potential. Still, even those put off by the visual indifference will probably appreciate some generous doses of brutal gore at pivotal moments.
Ultimately, though, Free Fire settles for being a satisfactory yet rather underwhelming effort, given how a director of Wheatley’s talent absolutely shouldn’t be settling for a merely passing grade. It’s encouraging to see him roping in Hollywood casts, but his next idea might benefit from a little more thought in terms of execution before being put to film.
Free Fire is in UK cinemas March 31st 2017