Despite what its exciting title might suggest, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a fairly disciplined film. Focused, tempered, controlled and ironically straight shooting, the bottled ensemble action/dark comedy makes you expect something maniacal, perhaps even balls-to-the-wall looney. And yet, the actual movie itself plays like a crackling trail of TNT, one that you think will eventually explode in your face, although it mostly fizzles out before the big boom. You expect fireworks but you’re mostly left with whimpering bottle rockets. That’s not to call the experience dull; it does capture your interest in a few choice moments. But it’s definitely underwhelming, especially given the talent involved. From its strong cast to its well-established director to its promising premise, Free Fire truly could’ve been an absolute blast. Instead, it only occasionally pops, as you’re left waiting for it to truly, finally ignite.
In its tight 90-minute real-time frame, set (one assumes) during the mid-to-late ’70s in Boston, Free Fire casually introduces us to our main players, including the beautiful, self-dependent intermediary Justine (Brie Larson), the suave, bearded representative Ord (Armie Hammer), the mild-mannered IRA Chris (Cillian Murphy), the provoked associate Harry (Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor), the tweaking, beaten driver Stevo (Control‘s Sam Riley), the level-headed ex-Panther/fellow associate Martin (Babou Ceesay) and the eccentric, misdiagnosed former child genius/arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), before throwing them all into harm’s way. You see, these various miscellaneous personalities are brought together in a bunker to peacefully (as possible) transfer assault rifles between two heated groups of no-gooders. Everyone wants to handle this interaction as smoothly as they can, but that’s not going to be possible when Harry catches a furious glimpse at Stevo.
The reason why tensions are mounted is because Stevo allegedly beat up Harry’s 17-year-old cousin, disfiguring her in the process. Harry is the one that beat up Stevo the night prior, and he certainly isn’t done feeding him his fists. Everyone does their best to keep everything in order, but when Harry starts firing the first shots, everything goes to absolute shit. It doesn’t help that there are weapons everywhere. From there, it’s every man/woman for themselves, as each person tries to walk away with their lives and the cash. Think Reservoir Dogs meets Rat Race, only not quite as fun and loose as those two movies. It’s certainly not straight-laced, as the movie is as foul-mouthed as it’s filled with firing bullets, but Free Fire isn’t nearly as wacky or sassy as you’d hope it’d be.
Sure, Free Fire aims to be cheeky, but it’s only moderately, intermediately clever. It’s periodically amusing, but the jokes earn just light chuckles — if that. It’s action-packed, but it’s not nearly as bloody or starkly graphic as Wheatley’s past films, which includes Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise and an inspired, violent segment in The ABC’s of Death. Free Fire plays like a Quentin Tarantino movie by way of Martin Scorsese, who serves as an executive producer. That’s fun on paper, certainly, and Free Fire will definitely earn some hardy comparisons to Tarantino’s last film, the rambunctious, under-appreciated three-hour roadshow extravaganza The Hateful Eight. But with that movie so fresh on the mind, Free Fire often falls short.
The characters are broadly drawn and only occasionally animated. The action is consistent but rarely does it sizzle. The dialogue can be snappy, but it doesn’t quite pop. Amy Jump and Wheatley’s screenplay echoes the filmmakers mentioned above with loving nods, but it doesn’t quite nail the crucial details. The shooting sequences are filmed with little flair and only periodic excitement, and the deaths contain little variety, save for one character’s extended, misfortunate demise. Worse of all, however, there’s very geography within the bunker. With the limited space, Wheatley never gives us a clear understanding of what’s happening at any given time, therefore making the action far less enjoyable and much more frustrating to endure. It’s the only way the movie lives up to its title.
In short, Free Fire isn’t nearly as exciting or intense as it ultimately should be, and it starts to get tepid and tedious when it should be rather exhilarating. But, again, it’s a hard film to outright dislike. The cast, while underused, shine in their thin characters. The suspense, at its best, is rich and pulpy in a grounded way. The costumes and period designs are lovingly handled, with each character given an individual sense of style. And when it does figure itself out just right, it is pretty fun to watch. But its success is modest, and while it ultimately holds up better than Very Bad Things and The Boondock Saints, it calls to mind those ’90s Tarantino wannabes, the kinds of films that try to evoke other filmmakers’ success without quite figuring it out its own — which is a shame, since Wheatley’s own style is signature and dynamic enough on its own. He didn’t need to copy others.
Free Fire isn’t quite dynamite, but it’s not a complete bust either. It’s one of those difficult in-between movies, ones that can’t outright be dismissed, yet ones you struggle to praise wholeheartedly. It’s not a killer nor is it a burnout. It’s the kind of movie you want to love, but you can only somewhat admire. And that’s a bit of a bummer, to say the very least. Wheatley knows how to make explosive movies, and Free Fire sadly isn’t one of his best efforts. But it’s cool and collected enough to give it a shot.