“Free Fire” is the idea that hits someone 12 hours deep into a Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie movie marathon. “You know what would be cool? It’s like paintball, but with real guns.” And to be fair, that is an interesting framing device, but when everything that follows has been done several times before, the device loses its charm rather quickly. This would explain why the film felt like the longest 85-minute film ever made. It’s interesting, but maddening, thanks in large part to a threadbare story structure, underwritten dialogue and next to no character development.
The story is set in Boston in the late ‘70s, where Ord (Armie Hammer) is serving as an intermediary in a weapons deal between career criminal Frank (Michael Smiley) and gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) in an abandoned warehouse. The guns that Vernon brings to the deal are not the ones that Frank’s main man Chris (Cillian Murphy) requested, making a tense negotiation worse, but the deal blows up when Vernon’s driver Harry (Jack Reynor) shoots Frank’s junkie son-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley) in retaliation for something that happened the night before. Everyone runs for cover and the battle lines drawn, but they’re all trapped in the warehouse with no easy way out. To further complicate matters, two snipers begin shooting at both parties from the rafters, at which point everyone realizes that they’ve been double crossed by someone on the main floor.
With the exception of Hammer’s strangely-named Ord, who steals the movie by default for playing the only character with a distinct personality, the vast majority of the dialogue consists of variations on people yelling, “Fuck, I’ve been shot!” And to be fair, that is surely what would happen in the real-world version of this film, but “Free Fire” doesn’t exist in order to reflect the real world. This is fantasy, a gory simulation that challenges the viewer to ask himself, “Could I survive this? If not, how long would I last?” It would have been perfectly fine if the verbal exchanges these people had were just as outlandish as everything else about the movie. In fact, that would have made the movie infinitely more watchable.
One other bit of historical context: Copley’s character, like Copley himself, is South African, which means that apartheid is still going strong when this movie takes place, and it is therefore highly unlikely that Vernon has a black man like Martin (Babou Ceesay), funny, cool and collected though he may be, as his #2. If you’re going to have a character play against type, you need to explain it. In their obsession with making a ‘70s-era film and filling it with ironic song choices (ahem, John Denver), this was a loophole that they forgot to close.
The movie is never particularly boring, but it never gets to the next level, either. The stakes are raised for both sides in the second act, but the end result of the new stakes is nothing more than shootouts on two floors rather than one. The overall lack of character development is the real killer here. We learn the back story of a few of them, but they’re all disposable in the end.
It’s easy to see why the cast (Oscar winner Brie Larson is here as well) was interested in making “Free Fire.” The co-writer and director, Ben Wheatley, has a reputation for making challenging films. All actors love a challenge, and the premise is loaded with potential. One wonders if a lot of them signed on because they were too young at the time to be cast in the films that played during that aforementioned, fictional Tarantino/Ritchie marathon and doing this film was the next best thing. Only this isn’t the next best thing.