By Jeff Boudreaux
Writer/Director Ben Wheatley’s seriocomic homage to Tarantino, “Free Fire,” is a rudimentary exercise in Murphy’s Law, bestowed upon one of the worst scenarios imaginable. Namely, an arms deal gone horribly wrong, and in the confines of an abandoned warehouse with no shortage of shady characters and lots (and lots) of guns. It consists of representatives of the Irish Republican Army, go-betweens, a psychotic arms dealer, and two-bit henchmen. Since it does involve the mass sale of weapons, and everyone there is already packing, it becomes an outlandish tale of survival, where bullets never cease to fly and targets never cease getting hit. Some are played for laughs, and some are deadly, but all represent a wildly good time for the viewer who’s witnessing a showdown for the ages.
The year is 1978. IRA operative Chris (Cillian Murphy) wants (or needs) some M-16’s, and he’s accompanied on his deal by a broker-of-sorts, Justine (Oscar-winner Brie Larson), wing-man Frank (Michael Smiley), and two lowlife transporters, the stooge-like Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and crackhead Stevo (Sam Riley). Their liaison is Ord (Armie Hammer), a wise-cracking, bearded yuppie complete with turtleneck and sportscoat. He has arranged a meeting in an abandoned warehouse where erratic South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) shows up with his assistant Martin (Babou Ceesay), and a van full of AR-15’s, driven by their two delivery guys, Harry and Gordon (Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor), with the former involved in a serious skirmish with the aforementioned crackhead the previous night! Not exactly what the customer ordered, and a disaster waiting to happen, right? What transpires over the next hour-and-a-half is a slow burn of epic proportions of a journey into a fully-functional war zone that’s both high-octane and hilarious.
What I really enjoyed about this movie is its eclectic cast, with nearly every character having a standout comic moment delivered by their respective actors. While Brie Larson’s work here is solid, I get the feeling that she’s just a tad bit out of place. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a pleasant diversion amid an otherwise testosterone-induced cocktail, yet I still can’t help but think that this role is somewhat beneath her. Oh, the conundrum facing Oscar winners! Sharlto Copley, however, is utterly hilarious as the unscrupulous dealer (is there otherwise?) and some of the best laughs come from this big shot, who’s reduced to small potatoes when the going gets tough. The always-reliable Cillian Murphy shows why he can fill virtually any type of role, hence his impressive body of work with some of the world’s greatest directors. His trademark calm, cool demeanor clashes with that of the high-strung antics of Copley, as well as serving as a foil to Armie Hammer’s comic portrayal, for some of the film’s best scenes.
While probably one of the least known members of the main cast, Sam Riley (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) steals just about every scene he’s in as Stevo, a derelict that you just can’t bring yourself to hate. In fact, just about everyone gets equal screen time, but that’s to be expected in a story that focuses on everyone shooting each other for 80 percent of the film. One area I particularly took notice to was the dynamic, pseudo-electronic, spaghetti western-tinged (!) score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (“Ex Machina”), which elevated the action onscreen immeasurably. As for the recurring interlude of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” album emitting from the merchandise van’s 8-track player, well that was just simply lagniappe. Also, worth mentioning is Emma Fryer’s exceptional costume design. These characters onscreen looked as if they were, in fact, taking part in a gunfight in 1978. Contrast that with the recently-released “The Case for Christ” which was set in the same, exact year, yet no-one except lead actor Mike Vogel seemed to get the memo!
While I do believe that there was a degree of redundancy in the gunplay, the further we delved into Wheatley’s script, it allowed for improvements in the onscreen violence. I’ll go as far as saying that some of the latter demises were downright innovative. It also doesn’t hurt that the executive producer of “Free Fire” is none other than the legendary Martin Scorsese, who seems to know a thing or two about guys with guns. And it must be noted that while Mr. Scorsese is only producing this film, he just happens to be rebounding from the biggest bust of his historic career (“Silence”), and fans of his classic mob pictures should be lining up to check this out by the droves. With no shortage of violence, action or laughs, “Free Fire” is British auteur Wheatley’s (“High-Rise”) way of letting America (as well as audiences around the world) know that he’s leaving the strict confines of British cinema with an absolute bang.
*** (three-out-of-four stars)