A Genre Pleaser Starring a Cast of Talented Character Actors
English writer/director Ben Wheatley is quickly asserting himself as a top-notch genre-specific director that plays to his fanboy target audience. Making his name in the last few years with horror comedies (2012’s Sightseers) and psychological-suspense thrillers (2015’s High-Rise), he continues his gradual march towards (his version of) Hollywood mainstream fare with 2017’s Free Fire. Premiering last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Free Fire is a single-act, single-location action/comedy set in a warped version of the 1970s that’s inhabited by character-y arms dealers and henchmen. Wheatley assembled a star-studded cast to feature in Free Fire, highlighted by Sharlto Copley (District 9), Armie Hammer (The Social Network), Brie Larson (Room), and Cillian Murphy (The Wind That Shakes The Barley), along with a host of other recognizable actors.
The premise in Free Fire is straightforward – a group of Irish IRA members meet up with a rank of international arms dealers in an abandoned, run-down factor; with a couple middle-men overseeing the exchange. The deal goes wrong, and a shoot-out ensues with larger-than-life characters and constantly shifting loyalties. Less a film plot, Free Fire offers a quick set-up that plays out as a 90 minute shoot-out; while viewers try to figure out who is going to be the last man (or woman) standing.
Wheatley’s cast is great all around, with everyone getting a chance to throw around some raunchy lines; and no one missing out on the gratuitous violence. Cillian Murphy plays Chris, the only Irishman present with his head firmly on his shoulders; shepherding around his gang of misfit druggie henchmen, all of which are ready to pop-off on sudden notice. Murphy’s Chris is a hopeless romantic, and enamored with the only feminine presence in the abandoned warehouse, Brie Larson’s Justine. Justine helped set up the connection between Chris and the guns he wants. Justine may be a woman, but she is no less ruthless; Chris’ feelings for her may be his undoing. Armie Hammer plays the bearded, turtle-neck wearing Ord; another middle man whose loyalties are available for the right price; complete with a snobby indifference for having to even be there in the first place.
Murphy, Larson, and Hammer are all great in their own right, but are more-or-less ‘straight men’ when compared to the uber-eccentric, ridiculous South African arms-dealer Vernon, played by Sharlto Copley. Decked out in a pastel ‘Miami Vice’ suit, and an equally absurd blonde coiffed ‘do and thick 70’s mustache; Copley is having more than enough fun to make Free Fire worth the admission price. Copley, pushing his South African accent to comically extreme levels, is a match stick among a pile of fireworks, just looking for a reason to start a commotion. Copley gets the lion’s share of signature lines such as the compliment he pays Justine at the start of the film, “As gorgeous as ever! Well you’ve uh put on a bit of weight. Did someone impregnant you?” With the range he has shown in his recent performances, from the hilarious self-deprecating brother in The Hollars to being the only good part of Elysium, Copley is building up a career as one of the better character actors working today.
The less familiar supporting acting talent in Free Fire is equally as strong, with notable performances by Jack Reynor and Sam Riley, an arms-dealer henchman and doped-up Irish good respectively; with some personal history that sets up the entire bloody showdown. Sam Riley’s grimy ‘Stevo’ seemingly dies 3 or 4 times throughout the shootout; just to pop-up again later to instigate some more drama with Reynor’s Harry. Not much of a spoiler since only 1 person is going to make it out of the warehouse in one piece; but Stevo and Harry’s eventual fates get the award for most imaginative demises.
Nearly a character unto itself, the warehouse that director Ben Wheatley has chosen as his central location for the film casts a tone over the film, with its repugnant level of grim and filth. The milieu the wannabe arms dealers find themselves in is rife with rusty nails strewn across the floor, and enough cover spots and hiding places that making this shootout stretch to 90 minutes doesn’t ever feel too long. The factory locale acts as its own weapon at times, with fuel tanks waiting to be turned into homemade explosives, and an assortment of booby traps to avoid. Maybe best embodying Wheatley’s comic sensibilities is when one unlucky character is digging around in the debris looking for a weapon, only to get stuck in the hand with a rusty used needle.
The biggest deficiency in Free Fire is, with nearly a dozen characters all engaged in their own side-fights around the property, there is some confusion about everyone’s whereabouts and status. It’s easy enough to remember everyone’s initial ‘side’, but with rapidly shifting loyalties and so many people to keep track of (both alive, dead, and maybe dead); viewers might get lost trying to remember where everyone is at any given moment. It may be a consequence of the film’s single-act, single-location premise, but if viewers don’t concern themselves to much about it, and just let the process unfold, everything will be clear by the end.
- Directing: 8/10 – Wheatley has some trouble keeping everything straight for audiences, but never has trouble keeping us entertained.
- Screenwriting: 9/10 – Free Fire‘s single-act, single-location premise makes for unpredictable and un-Hollywood twists and turns.
- Acting: 9/10 – Sharlto Copley leads an all-star cast that has no weak links.
- Make-Up and Stunts: 7/10 – A few explosions here and there, and a lot of gunfire; most of the work here is focused on make-up staff making actors more and more grimy and dusty as the mayhem unfolds.
8/10 – Ben Wheatley continues making a name for himself with the genre-pleasing action/comedy Free Fire. Relying less on story, and more on hilariously dirty dialogue, gratuitous violence, and talented character actors; Free Fire is an action-packed 90 minute crowd pleaser.