It’s a simple weapons deal. The meeting place is an abandoned warehouse. One party has the guns, and the other, the money. They are to change hands and–whoops, there’s the kicker: the hands. The hands are attached to an assortment of trigger-happy twits with varying degrees of facial hair. After twenty minutes of set-up and about three seconds of poor decision making, “Free Fire” kicks into a delightful hour of severe slapstick, in which bullets fly like coconut cream pies.
With a premise this barebones, there’s nowhere else to go but inward. It is there we have the pleasure of meeting the characters, some of whom bear mentioning. Armie Hammer is Ord, a consummate professional with a misplaced smile and the vocal delivery of a camp counselor. Sam Riley plays Stevo, the junkie whose idiocy is the snowball from which the firefight originates—thanks to his habit, he repeatedly dozes off during combat. Then there’s Sharlto Copely as Vernon, a loquacious poser with a partner named Martin, who “used to be a Panther, but it didn’t work out.” Martin is the smartest guy in the room, so, of course, his brain is grazed with a bullet early on, rendering him a brain-dead zombie. Ben Wheatley, writer/director, wisely keeps the IQ points to a minimum.
“Shoot, duck for cover, hurl insult, repeat” proves to be a surprisingly sustainable resource for comedy, due in no small part to Wheatley’s emphasis on farcical violence and that dialogue that comes from speaking before thinking. It’s nice that even in a film full of machine guns and revolvers, a character can still hit his head on the bottom of a desk; and a carrot colored van can get one of the biggest laughs as it staggers around the warehouse, in one character’s poor attempt to escape. Even so, there are times when things get monotonous and the idea of this being a short film begins to sound more than reasonable, maybe even obvious.
The film’s setting of the 1970s is important for a couple of reasons. First: the clothes. If you’re going to have a cast of colorful characters, personality-wise, you might as well double-down and dunk them in the soft pastels of ’70s fashion. Outside of cosmetics, the apparel gives way to a great gag, where a character gets shot in the shoulder and freaks out, only to calm down when he realizes the bullet mostly hit his shoulder pad. Second: cell phones. In the arena of feature film writing, there must be two eras: pre-cell phone and post-cell phone. The film benefits from the isolation of the times, as the inability to call for help is a small, but vastly important aspect when constructing a cinematic environment.
Be warned, “Free Fire” contains no actual story. And why should it? I can appreciate a film that doesn’t try to satisfy every whim of the audience, even if it is shallow. But if your whims are hard-up and you can’t go without, the film could pass as an allegory for the senselessness of war. The characters are a multinational bunch, with accents from South Africa, America (and its Boston variety), Ireland and England. They clumsily fill each other full of lead and to what purpose? By the time it’s over, the dead don’t care and the living have bigger problems.
3.5 out of 5 stars