Brie Larson and Armie Hammer in Free Fire
Joanna reviewed Free Fire at TIFF in September. You can read her thoughts on the movie here.
Free Fire also stars SHARLTO COPLEY, that’s very important. The latest from English filmmaker Ben Wheatley (High Rise, A Field in England), Free Fire is in the vein of John Wick and The Raid, where the whole point is the beat down. (I have started calling this sub-genre “beat-down movies”.) Set in Boston in the 1970s, Free Fire gets right to business: Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley, Luther) are in town to buy guns to take back to the IRA. They’re assisted by Frank’s American relation Stevo (Sam Riley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti, A Field in England). Stevo and Bernie, it should be noted, are not especially helpful.
Facilitating the deal is the dapper Ord (Armie Hammer), and Justine (Brie Larson), who has developed a bullet-proof façade when it comes to dealing with men (but not actual bullets). Ord and Justine bring in the seller, Vernon (Copley), who is introduced with one of the single greatest lines of character exposition EVER: “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius. He’s never gotten over it.” With Vernon come Martin (Babou Ceesay, Rogue One), Harry (Jack Reynor), and Gordon (Noah Taylor, Powers). Within moments of being introduced, everyone hates each other, and then it turns out Harry and Stevo got into a bar fight the night before because Stevo “bottled” Harry’s sister, permanently scarring her. And then the gun deal goes to sh*t.
Within the first ten minutes we meet all the players and understand the relationships, and within about fifteen the shooting starts. Free Fire wastes no time, and the script, co-written by Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump, is extremely compact and tight, parceling out only the information we need and completely skipping explanations. In a dumber movie, Chris and Frank would have a whole conversation about Ireland and the IRA, but Wheatley leaves it to their accents, the time period, and their interest in black market guns to get that information across.
Like John Wick, Free Fire is pure joy to watch. This is a tremendous ensemble cast and everyone is clearly having a ball—Hammer has never been better—and though the film isn’t really a comedy, everyone gets in at least one good zinger. Copley, especially, has the most spectacular dialogue and he crushes every line. But Larson has an outstanding moment, too, out of patience with the posturing men surrounding her yet still playing the game to survive (shades of her future as Captain Marvel, perhaps). And there is a GREAT twist on the “black guy dies first” trope.
Every moment of Free Fire is a delight, from Vernon’s absurd blathering to the unexpectedly emotional beats that start dropping later in the film. One of the best elements is the visual comedy—everyone gets shot pretty much right away, so no one can really walk. Which means most of the film is everybody flopping and rolling across the warehouse setting. At one point, Justine is in a hallway chase that’s just her desperately scooching down the hall at a snail’s pace. It’s not a funny scene, per se, but it is a hysterical image.
Wheatley turns every expectation of a shoot-out upside down and ends up with the best shoot-out movie in recent memory. This is the most accessible film he’s ever made, yet it retains his distinctive stamp—his eye is so unique you barely notice almost the entire movie takes place in one interior set because he’s so good at varying his shots. The gun fight (AKA, the whole movie) is expertly choreographed and performed, and it matters if and where you’re wounded, when you run out of ammo, and what cover is nearby. There are no magical bullets here—in fact, everyone is a pretty bad shot—and the terrain of the warehouse matters a great deal, especially since no one can walk. And there’s an A+ use of John Denver, too. Free Fire is the happiest a movie has made me since John Wick Chapter 2.
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