FILM REVIEW: Character Comedy FREE FIRE Fires on all Cylinders
Midway through the surprisingly comedic shoot ‘em up flick Free Fire, when most characters are (mild spoilers) sniveling around in pain and indignation, the unsuspecting viewer is left sincerely wondering where exactly writer-director Ben Wheatley. If this were a Tarantino film, as in some ways the movie at least aspires to be, you’d know exactly what is coming and how.
But Free Fire, free from the thematic chorus that one comes to expect from Quentin’s movies, is able to charter its own journey and, to most viewers’ delight, do so with genuinely unexpected turns.
When the action begins, a pair of dimwitted getaway drivers of sorts are heading to a rendezvous point on a dock somewhere, decked out in 1970s attire. Awaiting them are a nervous pair of Irish Liberation Army would-be gun buyers that included an arms broker played by Brie Larson and a feisty Irishman portrayed by Cillian Murphy. Soon, they are met by the broker for the would-be sellers, an overconfident charmer impishly portrayed by Armie Hammer.
From the outset, particularly if you are no quite sure what the movie is about, the tone and tension leave you guessing exactly where the plot will take you. You sense, of course, that something is afoot and that trouble is somewhere in the horizon. But it’s not clear immediately where or whence it will spring, and just exactly what form it will take. Hedging prolonged tension with comedic pauses, akin not only to Tarantino but also a good Coen Brothers’ movie, Free Fire grips you with its stylistic and aesthetic, as well as dramatic achievements.
You may think, for example, that the 1970s setting was purposefully used to give you an Irish arms-buying gang. In reality, the 1970s timeframe is clearly an excuse to dress the characters up in clothing that will make their later physical exertions even more comedic.
The movie is without question the best by comedian and animator Ben Wheatley, who is probably best known for last year’s disastrous High Rise. It is most clearly inspired not just by the likes of The Hateful Eight, but even by the comedic-sketch architecture of cult classics like Clue and Natural Born Killers. The appearance of veneer characters midway or three quarters of the way through is predictable enough as fodder to increase runtime. At the same time, Free Fire weaves its own path through the ticket of the action-comedy genre, continually leaving you guessing as to whether he means it or not.
Wheatley also makes superb use of a stellar composite task that includes Larson in her best performance since winning the Oscar (showing her comedic wit really seriously for the first time), Murphy as the winking devil that only he knows how to portray so well, and Hammer, not quite stellar but decent enough to warrant respect. Of the supporting cast, Sharlto Copley (a bit player in movies from District 9 to Maleficent) steals everyone’s thunder as the eccentric, somewhat neurotic leader of the gun-selling gang.
Most impressive is the repeated, and seemingly grueling corporeal hoops that the various members of the cast must jump through. The entire film requires them to act within the range not just of comedy and explosive tension, but also through extensive bodily moments. This, again, keeps you guessing, confused, and genuinely enthralled.
If anything can be said about Free Fire that is no wholly satisfactory is that the midriff of the film is clearly bloated with a relatively sophomoric director’s touch. The entire idea for the film is almost exclusively a short skit that got extended into 90 minutes. To achieve feature-length status Free Fire is forced to return to the well of confusion and dragging-yet-again-across-the-rooms one times too many. At some point, you do wish they’d get on with it.
But get on with it they do, and then they finally do, Wheatley clearly saved the best for last. Which of the warring factions or personalities will emerge victorious from the melee is not clear or anywhere telegraphed until absolutely necessary. While Wheatley falls into some ruts about which characters are more expendable, his overall conclusion is satisfactory and entertaining, the entire project and exercise in wit and mettle.
While Free Fire may not ever live up to the status of iconic films by iconic directors such as those by which it has been clearly inspired, it is, at the absolute least, a fitting tribute to them while at the same time carving a particular niche for itself and its own filmmakers.