In its best moments, Free Fire makes Tarantino appear restrained in comparison.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like to watch a dozen bleeding tough guys (and one steely woman) crawl around a dusty warehouse floor while shooting guns at each other for the better part of 90 minutes, Free Fire has your answer. Ben Wheatley’s cartoonish ‘70s-era shoot-em-up is a Tarantino knockoff without the nonlinear trickery and only about half the wit, hewing a bit more closely to the cheeky tone of Guy Ritchie’s early barrages of bullets, minus the hyper-stylization. And yet, despite its unimaginative premise, Free Fire sends up action movie tropes with the kind of self-aware humor that hits the sweet spot between parody and homage while never fully indulging in either. It’s gleefully over-the-top enough to pack a wallop, even if its scattershot humor results in far fewer hits the further along we go.
The plot actually does boil down to little more than a bunch of people shooting at each other, but for those who demand specifics, it’s worth noting that Free Fire’s premise hinges on a black-market arms deal gone horribly wrong. IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have arranged to purchase a few dozen assault rifles from a pair of gun-peddlers, the weaselly Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). Mediating the deal on behalf of the IRA is the level-headed Justine (Brie Larson), and acting as middleman for the arms dealers is the cool beard-oil-aficionado Ord (Armie Hammer). Vernon imperils the deal by bringing the wrong kind of rifle, but after some smooth talk from Ord and Justine, everything appears to be moving toward resolution. Then a fracas breaks out due to some bad blood between two of the opposing sides’ underlings, with one (Jack Reynor) ultimately firing a shot and unleashing the mayhem.
As everybody scatters and starts firing, steadily sustaining a ludicrous number of shoulder and leg wounds before anyone actually gets killed, factions form and dissolve and clever zingers fly as frequently as the bullets. Ord periodically roasts a joint, and the IRA’s stooge ultimately responsible for the whole upset (Sam Riley) manages to do some smack. Schemes are hatched and foiled, and options fall by the wayside as more blood is spilled and the incapacitating wounds pile up. It’s clear that very few of these characters will be making it out of the warehouse alive, but that reality remains lighthearted throughout—it’s rare to find a film that derives so many laughs out of gunshot wounds.
As the body count finally starts rising, the film’s energy flags. After all, it’s the wisecracks that drive Free Fire, not the fates that each character will ultimately meet. Copley and Hammer are the most entertaining, with the latter’s sonorous voice and impossibly chill aura acting as a foil to the former’s peculiar cadence and uptight demeanor. Murphy basically just brings his Tommy Shelby gang leader from “Peaky Blinders” into the 1970s, making time to flirt with Larson’s Justine, who even as the token female feels underused. With its snappy dialogue, flippant humor and the indulgent fun of its unceasing gunfights, Fire Free may only slightly rise above the b-movie action it emulates, but there’s a certain pleasure in watching an unapologetically zany shoot-em-up flick that can, in its best moments, make Tarantino appear restrained in comparison.