What if we took the shoot-out scene from an action movie and made it the whole movie? That seems to be the premise behind Free Fire, the 2016 film directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Wheatley and Amy Jump. Free Fire is a single location indie film not unlike High Rise, another feature from the same team.
Free Fire is about an arms deal gone wrong. In 1970s-era Boston, MA, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley play members of the Irish Republican Army who attempt to buy guns from some shady arms dealers (Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor) aided by an intermediary (Brie Larsen). Then something goes wrong, and all hell breaks loose, culminating in a shoot-out with multiple participants being killed or injured. There are a couple of surprises here and there, but that’s pretty much the movie.
The simplistic plot is elevated by some snappy dialogue and great performances by all those involved. The action is realistic and the comedy is dark with characters who are still able to quip even while bleeding from bullet wounds.
This is an ensemble film in which all the actors have their moments in the sun. Sharlto Copley plays the sleazy arms dealer to the hilt complete with period appropriate mustache and sideburns and a suit that tells you everything you need to know about this guy. Armie Hammer shows his comedic side and inherent charisma. Brie Larsen is the only woman in the movie and often referred to as “the bird” by Copely, yet we can tell that she can handle herself. We never know which side she’s on—an element that adds some depth to her character and to the plot.
The 70s cars, music, costumes, and hair styles create an instant environment. The period also provides a way around some modern technologies that can often cripple these types of plots like cell phones and GPS. Our characters are trapped in this situation, and they can’t just call for reinforcements or contact each other when they’re pinned down by gunfire without shouting and having the other side hear them. This makes it much more fun to watch than a bunch of people texting one another.
This film has been compared to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Both films involve criminals, a warehouse, a job gone wrong, great dialogue, colorful characters played by a strong ensemble cast, and of course, guns. Where Reservoir Dogs sets itself apart is in its presentation. Tarantino uses a Rashomon-style structure with different characters telling their version of the story and then flashing back to scenes from their point of view. The flashbacks show us character development, relationships between the characters, and reveal plot twists. We are given more time with the characters and care more about the characters and the stakes of their predicament.
At 91 minutes, we don’t get to see the world outside Free Fire’s warehouse or see its characters experiences any under any other circumstances besides a tense arms deal and the big gunfight. We don’t seen Cillian and Smiley on the front lines in Northern Ireland or the set-up of the deal where we could have learned something about the characters on both sides. It would have been funny to see Copley picking out his rather ridiculous 70s suit only to see it later perforated with bullet holes. Perhaps it’s due to budget constraints, but these are the moments that would have given the movie some more fun and flavor.
All in all, Free Fire is a good movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome. The filmmakers seem to know how far they could stretch this premise. It’s a fun shoot-em-up with interesting characters and strong performances that will keep you engaged. It’s a perfect Netflix movie, the cinematic equivalent to a burger and fries that could have used a little more salt and pepper.