When you go main stream, there’s always going to be some mild compromises along the way. As writer/director Ben Wheatley works with as main stream of a cast as he ever has for the very first time, Free Fire is a fun, violent laden action romp that keeps a fantastic sense of fun and dead pan humor while only dialing back on some of the comedic severity that has made some of his movies beloved and borderline iconic in the more indie filmmaking and festival going circles.
It’s the mean streets of Boston in the late 1970’s as Justine (Brie Larson) has brokered a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two Irishman (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer) who are selling them a stash of guns. Before too long though, some simple misunderstandings escalate, a difference in personalities escalates into a shootout and a game of survival for everyone involved.
Working for the very first time under an “Executive Produced by Martin Scorsese” tagline, Ben Wheatley hits the main stream here with Free Fire; a film that manages to highlight all the eccentricities that made him a darling of the festival circuit while not executing too much outside of the box to scare any of the more straight laced and standard film goers.
It’s a simple but straight ahead story as Wheatley brings his sensibilities to this gun buy gone horribly wrong. It was smart for the narrative to have the self-contained one location as it kept thing simple for Wheatley allowing the story to move at a decent pace with a frenetic pace to the action makes it all feel very self contained which maxes out the fun as it never plays like a gritty crime drama, but rather just a gonzo sequence of violence that we can drop ourselves into as a piece of escapism. Think of it as Tarantino light (but quite a bit funnier). The script from Wheatley and frequent collaborator Amy Jump is overflowing with dry wit from beginning to end. The ensemble is actually a little too overloaded at times and it doesn’t make for a lot of character development, but we do get enough to enjoy the ride. It’s not a movie about that we are supposed to get too invested in the story; we just have to strap in and enjoy the pace of it all. Just put your head down and go and in this instance it works as it keeps Wheatley under a certain degree of reign. He’s still making a mainstream film, but isn’t veering away from what brought him to the dance as a storyteller and a filmmaker to begin with.
The ensemble is lead by Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy but in reality this is one of those movies where everyone really does get their moments in the sun even though in really for ¾ of the film everyone is bleeding and rolling around in dirt. Armie Hammer and Sharito Copley get their scene stealing moments as the violence and the one-liners get shared around the room with even Wheatley regular Michael Smiley and the up and coming Jack Reynor also clearing out a little bit of space for themselves while Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin and Sam Riley were criminally underused and felt awkward being there in the first place. It’s hardly a perfect effort from top to bottom, but as an ensemble performance that is the sum of its parts, it more then gets the job done as the cream rises to the top in this film.
At the end of the day, Free Fire won’t make the hardcore Ben Wheatley fans happy but it’s got enough pure entertainment value to make audiences who are new to his work curious enough to go check out his back catalog.