Short films are both a blessing and a curse for me to review. On one hand, I can spend less than an hour and a half watching a movie so I have more time to do important things in my day (like improve my record in Battlefiled 1); but on the other, I’m not left with much to talk about if the film isn’t mind-blowingly amazing or shockingly horrible. Worse still are the films that aren’t mediocre, but several missteps hold it back from an enthusiastic recommendation. So with that set up, I’d like to introduce you to Free Fire, a bare bones, 84-minute British crime film that pretty much plays out in real time as an arms deal goes bad dividing a group of mobsters into two teams trying to kill each other with whatever gun they can get their hands on. Sounds appetizing right? So where does it all go wrong, or rather, why am I not gushing incessantly about it? Let’s discuss…
We’ve got an all-star cast with Cillian Murphy as the head of an IRA cell during the 1970s meeting Sharlto Copley, as an arms dealer, in a Boston warehouse to purchase some guns to be delivered to Ireland. Facilitating the transaction is Brie Larson as intermediary and Arnie Hammer as a representative of the arms dealer. Both parties have plenty of armed goons on each side, including Jack Reynor (straight from Sing Street) as a thug working for Sharlto Copley’s crew. If you’re wondering why I’m not using any character names in this description, it’s because you barely get to know any of them before tensions arise between these two groups culminating in a bullet fiesta taking out heavy losses on each side…and that’s the film.
Seriously, that’s all there is to this movie. It’s one long, hour and a half shootout / standoff that occurs in a single location and ends with the fire fight is finally over. You’re not given a whole lot of time for character development or depth, so you may be wondering how the hell does a gun fight go on for so long. Well for starters, the players aren’t trained killers, they’re all businessmen and women as well as some amoral bouncers who have barely killed anyone in their respective lives. They know how a gun basically works, but only half of them know how to aim the damn things and barely any of them are that good at it. So instead of perfect headshots a-la-John Wick, you have people getting shot in the shoulder, back, arms, and legs…only one dude gets shot in the head and even in THAT doesn’t go the way you might think.
The word of the day to describe this movie is “messy,” in terms of subject matter, style of filmmaking, direction, composition of scene, and execution of action. And while it doesn’t always work, it still manages to hold your interest for the 80 some minutes you’re watching this spectacle unfurl. Helping it along is a profound sense of style with the 1970s styling and dialects courtesy of Ben Wheatley, the director of last year’s High-Rise. Now I enjoyed this film far more than his previous effort, which just felt too obtuse for my tastes, but he’s now given me something that doesn’t give me much to talk about.
I could explain how good the cast is; I mean all of them are absolutely great, but I really didn’t know any of them. The film gives you the bare bones of a personality before plunging them headfirst into this chaotic gunfight. It’s even harder to do as the action unfurls pretty much in real time, but I’ve seen this done more effectively in fare like Phone Booth, but that film was more laser focused on a single character portrayed by Colin Farrell. I honestly didn’t know any of the characters’ names in Free Fire but simply identified each by the actor or actress. To all of the thespians’ credit, they genuinely made me believe they were in peril even as they nonchalantly made use of gallows humor in between the brief moments where bullets weren’t flying everywhere.
Of note of the cast were definitely Sharlto Copley and Arnie Hammer. I’ve always been rooting for Copley ever since his debut in District 9, and it’s been interesting watching his career go from big budget fare like Maleficent to strange projects like Hardcore Henry and the Oldboy remake. Here, he once again brings out his favorite South African accent as a strung out arms dealer, and he’s easily one of my favorite characters to watch in this movie with his spastic screams and cutting jibes to his own crew. Second to Copley was Arnie Hammer, who has struggled in the mainstream Hollywood arena. Ever since that awful Lone Ranger remake, he really hasn’t been able to take a lead role worth his talents, but he demonstrates in this film some solid comedic timing and acting chops that should earn him more work in the future. Let’s just hope he continues down the indie road and avoid the big budget area until he can stand on his two feet.
Brie Larson is solid as always, but she doesn’t have as much of an opportunity to wow the audience like she did in Room. Still, for what little she’s given to work with, she makes every minute count, especially in one scene where she has to go one-on-one with a thug and she’s got two gunshot wounds. Also impressive? Jack Reynor as one of the loudmouth thugs. Really looking forward to what else this actor does as he continues his redemption of the abysmal Transformers 4.
Ultimately, this is one of those films that probably won’t be remembered as one of the “greats” but will likely inspire a real go-getter of a director to craft something truly amazing in the future. Because there’s really not a whole lot of meat to chew on, but there’s something pretty fascinating for what you actually do get. This film’s on its way out of the cinemas, but if you have the chance, I’d check this one out as an above-average…