A pitch-black action comedy that's more slapstick than shoot 'em up.
Two sets of unsavoury characters meet in a Boston warehouse in the dead of night to exchange a suitcase full of money for a truck full of guns. It should be a simple swap, but inevitably the deal goes pear-shaped and bullets begin to fly. As premises go, the one at the heart of Free Fire could hardly be any simpler. But it's that simplicity, in part, that makes this pitch-black action comedy work as well as it does.
Taking the glamour, if not the glee, out of violent big-screen gun battles, Free Fire draws more on slapstick comedies than it does Hollywood shoot 'em ups. No one here is a particularly good shot, with the characters spending the bulk of their time huddled behind makeshift barriers nursing flesh wounds and screaming obscenities. Every injury is another punch line, as foot chases slow to a stumble and eventually a crawl.
At times, you may wish director Ben Wheatley did a better job maintaining a sense of visual geography – it's not always clear which character is where or who it is they're shooting at. Then again, the film is fundamentally about confusion, so perhaps that's the point. A percussion heavy jazz score accentuates the sense of chaos, while driving home the fact that the shooters are making things up as they go.
But more important than being able to keep track of who did the shooting is whether you actually care about the people getting shot. The script is a little thin when it comes to character development, but a strong cast helps flesh out what's on the page. Armie Hammer as a smooth talking sales rep, Brie Larson as an inscrutable mediator, Cillian Murphy as a soulful IRA lieutenant and Michael Smiley as his uptight comrade lead an ensemble that also includes Sam Riley, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor. Only Sharlto Copley, as an ostentatious arms dealer, crosses the line into caricature, although thankfully he's funny more often than he's annoying.
Ultimately though, how entertaining you find Free Fire will largely depend on how much you can laugh at people getting killed and/or maimed. Although considerably less nasty than some of Wheatley's earlier films such as Sightseers and A Field in England, this is still a decidedly dark affair. It's probably for the best than it only runs for an hour and a half. You can only go so long with a concept like this before the laughs are replaced with a sense of unease that's not anywhere near as fun.
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