'Free Fire' Is Clever and Vigorous -- Just Don't Expect It to Be Smart

Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley

Ben Wheatley's latest is Reservoir Dogs meets Smokin’ Aces minus any and all narrative ambition.

Free Fire

Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy
Rated: R
Year: 2017
US Release Date: 2017-04-21

We’ve just escalated from singed slacks and blazers to flesh wounds when Ord (Armie Hammer) captures the spirit of Free Fire like a cocktail party anecdote. He turns to his client Vern (Sharlto Copley), who’s fretting about his own mounting blood loss, and quickly explains there’s still time left on this earth. “It’s the Golden Hour-and-a-half,” Ord schools. “It’s a rule.”

For the new self-contained gunfight movie from Ben Wheatley, Ord’s combat colloquialism is more inspiration than rule. The Golden Hour-and-a-half is the window of time between first blood and total attrition during which Free Fire will empty every last chamber of its genre-movie zest, before bailing hard at the 90-minute mark. The film has no illusions about its slight frame. It’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) meets Smokin’ Aces (2006) minus any and all narrative ambition. Eight crooks of different stripes enter an abandoned factory in 1978 Boston. It’s an arms deal just waiting to go awry. Out come the firearms. Most won't survive.

On one side, there’s the faction with the briefcase. Justine (Brie Larson) is its centerpiece, a deal broker with a self-proclaimed “IIFM” philosophy. (“In it for myself,” she elaborates for an onlooker; it’s yet another cheeky instance of pretending viewers should know slang they don’t.) Chris (Cillian Murphy) is the sensitive IRA fighter for whom Justine is buying these rifles. He’s the kind of criminal who bashfully invites her to dinner when this is all over. His senior partner and countryman Frank (Michael Smiley) harbors no such sentiment. They’ve brought a couple lackeys for muscle: Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

The faction bringing the rifles to the table is a mirror image, represented by one cold capitalist and backed by some genuine scum. Armie Hammer’s Ord is the polished intermediary. The over-dressed and too gregarious Vern (Copley) and his seething partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) are the leadership, with Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) doing the driving and unloading.

The early anecdotal characterization of the two crews is Tarantino-worthy. Vern was a “misdiagnosed child genius and he never got over it,” Justine explains. Stevo sheepishly smokes heroin en route to the deal because his partner doesn’t have any aspirin for a headache: “Talk about a fucking sledgehammer to crack a nut.” Ord wants to be sure everyone has masturbated prior to the exchange. He doesn’t want to be around anyone “with a loaded weapon”.

Considering the dialogue prowess shown by Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump, this bottle-movie is an exhibition in lines of fire, for both bullets and banter. The sharp, brief rapport of the gunfire might be reflected in your theater too. In my screening, the dialogue elicited a barrage of snorts and quick cackles -- nothing sustained, all in-kind responses to punchlines.

As for the visual of a factory crumbling around a firefight, the violence is eccentric and constant but never reaches an aesthetic fantasy. No sequences of bullets are slowed down or shown traveling in first person from a gun barrel. Quick cuts from shooters to targets are plentiful, but the camera appears to be most intrigued by the physical effort and mistakes the characters make while trying to survive. The broader visual comprises hundreds of quick pans arching over hip bones and shoulders as people crawl, leap and spin to safety.

The cast commits completely to the action-comedy amalgam, but it’s only Hammer who rises above his station as an ensemble player, and unexpectedly and remarkably so. Was anyone waiting for the blond giant -- who played the Winklevoss twins and the maligned 2013 Lone Ranger -- to prove he could be a comedic standout? Hammer’s Ord retains a shtick all his own while the rest of the cast slowly bleeds its specificity as the Golden Hour-and-a-half wears on.

The movie uses Hammer’s excessively handsome jawline, strapping build, news anchor diction and manicured wardrobe as contrast to the decrepit hoods and the mayhem around him. One particular sequence, in which Ord stretches out his back in preparation to attack someone with a crowbar, is Dwayne Johnson-quality physical comedy. For something more subtle, Ord starts to look distraught as the casualties pile up -- not about the fact that he could die, but ostensibly because he’s not as cool as he thought when he looked in the mirror earlier that day. With bullets flying past, Hammer glowers as if his character missed a sale on the fall’s hottest turtlenecks or had to skip a week at the squash courts.

While the fire is free, Wheatley’s latest is constrained by the single card it has to play: guns in a room. For the film’s first half, the pistols are treated like backyard toys. The criminals hoot, guffaw and boast when they tag an opponent in a calf muscle or a tricep. “Did you cheaters bring a sniper?” Ord calls out at one point, further foregrounding the gamification of the intensifying violence. It’s clever, but you couldn’t call this lightweight movie smart. It wants for a theme of any kind. The meaning of such cruelty and desperation isn’t considered by a single character -- or the film itself.

The middling fate of Free Fire is sealed when the film becomes exactly what it foreshadowed. The prelude to a gunfight and the tension mingling with rapid characterization is the real pleasure. The subsequent deaths have a hint of obligation to them. Granted, it made no bigger promises, but at 90 minutes it’s still too long for what it has to offer. That’s disappointing, because Wheatley and Jump aren’t just getting lucky with the banter or the costuming or the cinematography -- there’s genuine imagination at work. Few would claim it’s not an entertaining powder keg to watch ignite. It’d be even harder to argue it’s anything more.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.