When a movie is clearly borrowing heavily from a classic it can be a massive detriment and at the very least distracting. Given the dearth of Tarantino imitators out there since his early-90’s rise to fame it’s obvious when another one hit’s the market – and is usually met with a healthy eye roll. Initially this was my reaction when I saw the trailer for Free Fire – a single location shoot em up with an A-list cast and 70’s leisure suits. It had all the markings of Guy Ritchie rip-off material. Luckily to my (and the audience’s) surprise – while generously bowing to its forbearers – Free Fire is a taught, slapstick comedy-thriller that mixes the increasingly gory-violence of Reservoir Dogs with the physical comedy of Buster Keaton.
The characters have simple motivations that only exist to get them into the same warehouse for the evening. In 1970’s Boston – the Irish are looking for guns to ship back to their homeland to aid in the civil war. Cillian Murphy plays an Irish guy (a real stretch) who – working with Michael Smiley – and a couple goons set up a transaction through a businesswoman played by Brie Larson. Their counterparts are a dastardly bunch. They are met first by the dashing Armie Hammer – struggling to hide that jawline behind a poorly tacked on beard. He leads them to Sharlto Copley – playing a coked-up version of his South African self, complete with a suit and wig so perfectly ill-fitting it looks ever so slightly like a Halloween costume.
What follows is the fun – a slow devolution of trust as members of both parties recognize each other for somewhat unbecoming reasons which leads to very poorly aimed gunfire which cascades into a lot of people limping around becoming weaker and weaker. Director Ben Wheatley crafts hysterical moments throughout the barely-90-minute film – using brutal gunfire as his comedic weapon. These are hardened criminals but they are terrible at this. The gunplay is goofy and decidedly un-movie like. When people get it, it hurts but they are almost never hit mortally, leaving one legged goons lobbing one-liners at each other as they hop around aimlessly.
Copley, Hammer and a standout scene by Babou Ceesay as Martin keep the tone lively throughout. Copley especially is a very funny actor who, given the right material (like his bravura performance in District 9) can really bring it. The only person, oddly, who is given short shrift here is Brie Larson who is as charismatic as ever onscreen but just, isn’t on screen very much. It’s a weird choice given how fast her star is rising which leaves me to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor.
Free Fire won’t win any awards and will be ignored by many until it’s inevitable Netflix debut but that undersells what Wheatley accomplishes here. A chamber piece like this is difficult to accomplish – especially when it’s in the gangster vein of America’s favorite f-bomb dropping Director – but he pulls it off admirably. As far as wacky diversions go, you could do far worse than FF… like a 3-hour Transformers movie for example…that will be much worse.