Free Fire is in the same stroke an absurdist presentation of the longest gunfight you’ll ever see and one grounded in an odd hyperrealism you don’t see much in action films. What starts as a funny and loose character study with an improbable amount of bullets ends the same way. And while that may sound like a one-note movie, that one note tends to be slick, sassy, and worth your time.
The premise to Free Fire sounds like the answer to the question of what is the least reliable combination of people to enter into a midnight gun deal. Two no-nonsense IRA members with two knucklehead henchmen are attempting to buy several crates of automatic rifles from a slimy South African arms dealer and his commensurate crew of muscle while a couple of (mostly) independent intermediaries grease the wheels in an abandoned factory.
Like I said, a recipe for trouble, and a somewhat overflowing one at that. There may just be three parties involved, but there are a lot of moving parts within each one and as a whole. Writer/director Ben Wheatley (co-writing with Amy Jump), however, manages to condense the entire thing into the base components. By mostly coincidence, one henchmen from each of the two main parties recognize each other after having gotten into a brawl the night before. And slowly but surely, the match inches closer and closer to the powder keg until the shooting starts and doesn’t stop.
This quick introduction performs admirably at setting up exactly what you should expect from the rest of the movie. Everyone—seriously everyone—is there to chew the scenery. The debilitatingly stupid Stevo (Sam Riley), for instance, plays the shady underling who tries to get out from under his rightful retribution with a slithering that Kevin Corrigan would be proud of.
He is the perfect foil to the marginally sharper but equally hotheaded and selfish Harry (Jack Reynor) so when the punches between the two escalate to bullets, it plays believably in a vaudevillian kind of way. And then the bullets start flying, seemingly randomly piercing appendages with little to no consequence, and the movie becomes a delicious pit of absurdity where A-list celebrities crawl around the dirty-covered floor for 90 minutes.
The more recognizable faces rip into their roles with an unfettered savagery that looks like they’ve been wanting for years. Brie Larson as Justine explodes into over-the-top rage at whim while shooting off Liz Lemon-level eye rolls. Cilian Murphy takes his Peaky Blinders Irishness with Chris up to the realm of caricature, stoic and cold for all the worst/best reasons.
And then you throw in Armie Hammer’s Ord, a character that looks like Hammer having the best time of his life in three acts. Ord is like a cherry-picked gestalt of all his favorite parts of his past roles with a little bit Winklevoss propriety, a dash of Illya Kuryakin’s consummate composure, and maybe a sprinkle of the oozing charm of Gabriel Edwards. And showing this against Sharlto Copley’s skeevy and overly, almost inexplicably South African Vernon is like a comedy duo where neither one knows if they’re the straight man or the banana man.
The characters, in fact, are really the only reason any of this works. There’s very little in the way of explosive, eye-catching action, though Wheatley does an admirable job keeping everyone and everything digestible. And as everyone starts taking lead in the legs, there’s even less in the way of standing action, everyone crawling around behind conveniently placed cement blocks like bugs avoiding the light.
With such a robust cast, it’s only natural some would take the lead while others bolster them. But some of them feel a bit like a waste, as the jokes the more prominent characters fall flat. Larson is especially underutilized with her motivations and her principles so clearly defined and immediately appreciable. And the relationship between Vernon and his cohort Martin (Babou Ceesay) would have been fun to play with had Martin not spent most of the movie pretty well removed from the action.
As it is, though, Free Fire knows pretty much exactly what it is, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. At a lean 90 minutes, it gets in and gets out in a way these hapless underworld criminals just couldn’t manage. It doesn’t have anything new to say or anything extraordinary to hand you, but it does have a lot of fun showing you what it is. And that is a rare thing to find.
Final Score: 7 out of 10