British director Ben Wheatley is used to taking things to the extreme in his movies, from the dark and bizarre Kill List and the off-kilter Sightseers to the violent exercise in all things hedonistic, High-Rise. With Free Fire, the filmmaker plays it a little safer, offering up a wildly more fun, star-studded action comedy that is much more likely to leave you laughing than questioning your film choice for the evening. But don't worry all you lovers of his more blood-soaked works... this outing still has its fair share of that.
Set in Boston (not that you'd really know it) in 1978 (now that, you could probably deduce), Free Fire sees Justine (Brie Larson) leading IRA supporters Chris and Frank (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) and their American-born cronies, into a derelict warehouse for a meeting she's evidently arranged previously. The purpose of the get-together is soon revealed to be a high-stakes arms deal, where weapon traffickers Ord (Armie Hammer) and Vernon (Sharlto Copley) hope to sell some rifles to their clients from the ol' Emerald Isle.
But things start to go south pretty fast when the buyer realise that Vernon hasn't brought him the exact guns he asks for and things get even worse when one of Vernon's boys, Harry (Jack Reynor), starts a fight with a member of Frank's gang, Stevo (Sam Riley), in retaliation for something that happened the night before. As tensions rise and conflicts escalate, the meet-up turns into a massive shoot 'em up as two professional trained snipers get thrown into the mix and every player finds themselves fighting to survive the night.
When a story is as simple as this one, audience enjoyment relies almost exclusively on the cast, so Wheatley should be thanking his lucky stars that he managed to bag one as talented as this. Every single actor plays ball, from unexpected gems such as Sam Riley and Jack Reynor as the sparring louts that kick everything off in their respective quests for revenge to the consistently charismatic Hammer and Murphy... and most of the time, all they're doing is rolling around on the floor spouting off quippy one-liners.
Before they all become injured and spend most of the movie rolling around on the floor though - it was pretty inevitable given that plot - Free Fire is at its most exciting mere moments before any shots are actually fired and it is here that the actors really get a chance to showcase their skills and their brilliant dynamic as a group. Each performer nails every line, speaking over each other and yet still being heard, and almost all of them work in a laugh.
The award for biggest scene stealer both before the stand-off and after has to go to Copley. His performance of his not-so-deadly and intimidating dealer, who seems more concerned about maintaining the crispness of his Savile Row suit and avoiding infection from all the germs in the building, than if any of his men make it out of the situation alive.
Looking at all the material he's given to work with, it's such a shame that Larson - who is by far the biggest name on the roster here - is rather underused. That's not to say she's not outstanding when she gets a line - at this point it is hard to imagine a time when Larson is anything less - but given the comedic chops she showed off in movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, her minor involvement is somewhat of a disappointment.
While the performances across the board are top-notch, at times however, some gags do quickly become a little one-note and you begin to wonder how many times you're expected to laugh-out-loud at someone getting shot. When it comes down to one-liners though, almost every single one lands, even when Vernon tries to coerce the umpteenth person into risking their lives just to rescue for him the case full of money which has been dumped in the middle of the shoot-out. You might think that one would get old, but it really, really doesn't.
It's not only its dialogue that sometimes suffers as a result of all its frantic action either. Given the large number of characters involved, there are more than a handful times when it's tough to discern who's actually shooting at whom, but then again, when you're not really on anyone's side, does it really matter anyway?
Even if the aesthetics aren't quite as polished as those you'd expect from an action blockbuster, one thing this comedy drama nails is its treatment of sound. Unrelentingly loud, almost every gunshot can be heard as it narrowly misses a character's ear or bounces off one of the factory's metal structures. It all adds to the confusion, not allowing you to really know which way is up and who is on top until someone has to reload and the dust settles for a few minutes.
Written by both Wheatley and his frequent collaborator Amy Jump, it's evident throughout that the pair were hoping that Free Fire would achieve the cult-like status of a Quentin Tarantino movie or at least something along those lines. And while the film shares similar aspects to such outings, it's clear that it needed to push its zany humour and violence just a little bit further to achieve that goal. That being said, it has more than enough to keep you entertained and at just 90 minutes, its undeniable talent will likely make you want a slightly longer running time nonetheless.