*** (out of 5)
April 21, 2017
Brie Larson as JUSTINE
Sharlto Copley as VERNON
Armie Hammer as ORD
Cillian Murphy as CHRIS
Jack Reynor as HARRY
Babou Ceesay as MARTIN
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
BY KEVIN CARR
I wouldn’t call myself a Ben Wheatley fan, but I’ve seen a handful of his movies. They’re not close to the mainstream, but they can be entertaining at times. They often exist on the fringe of mainstream films, offering some familiar archetypes but skewing more independent in terms of thought and presentation.
That makes Wheatley’s films unique but does provide a challenge in marketing them. Like the release of “T2: Trainspotting” earlier this year, widespread popularity would not exactly be a sign of success, since that would mean abandoning the core of what makes these stories interesting.
As was the case with his recent feature “High-Rise,” “Free Fire” features some known names and some familiar ideas. If you know Wheatley’s work, it will not surprise you that the plot of “Free Fire” focuses on the darker side of humanity. It’s not a feel-good movie, but as is with Wheatley’s style, there is still quite a bit of humor in its frames.
“Free Fire” is like a bottle episode of a television series. It’s essentially a snapshot of a story, taking place at a drop for an arms deal. Justine (Brie Larson), Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) arrive at a deserted factory to buy some automatic weapons in a deal brokered by Ord (Armie Hammer). However, when the gun dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) show up, things start to go sour. First, there are some personality clashes between the two groups, and then a couple of the hired hands from each side seek revenge on each other for a previous altercation.
What results is a long-form gun battle in the deserted factory in which every man is out for himself (or herself, in the case of Justine). Things go from bad to worse as more is revealed about doublecrosses in the gun deal and who is trying to walk away alive and richer.
It takes a few minutes to realize exactly what Wheatley is doing here, understanding that this is less of a plot-driven piece and more of a collision of wild characters and how they interact (often violently) with each other.
It seems that he Wheatley trying to channel Quentin Tarantino in much of the film (reminiscent of Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction” or the lead-up to the violence in “Reservoir Dogs”), which comes across as both good and bad. On one hand, Wheatley doesn’t have the command of banter the way that Tarantino does. On the other hand, he does manage to give the audience some memorable character moments and larger-than-life personalities.
In particular, the most interesting characters are Copley’s Vernon, who is the pot-stirrer more concerned with the pristine nature of his suit than he is with the accuracy of the arms deal. Hammer’s Ord is also quite entertaining, which is surprising because he’s generally a dullard on the screen. Larson’s Justine is wasted through most of the film, though she does have a nice introduction and an interesting denouement.
On the whole, I enjoyed “Free Fire” as an exercise in how not to handle an arms deal. There’s also a certain entertainment value in watching sleazy people in deteriorating situations of their own design. It’s an entertaining crime film and something different from the standard big budget Hollywood fare like the latest “Fast and Furious” film dominating the marketplace.