'Free Fire' delivers gleefully vacuous Tarantino-lite fare
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Where is it playing?: Stadium 10 Arroyo Grande
What's it rated?: R
What's it worth?: $ Rental
What's it worth?: $ Rental
Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers, High-Rise) helms this action-packed crime thriller about an arms deal gone wrong. Set in Boston in 1978, two rival gangs descend on a deserted warehouse to make a deal, but things quickly go spectacularly bad, resulting in a horrific shootout and a battle for survival between mysterious American business woman Justine (Brie Larson) and her associate Ord (Armie Hammer), IRA arms buyer Chris (Cillian Murphy) and South African gunrunner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), and their assorted henchmen. (90 min.)
Glen: If Quentin Tarantino’s low-budget single-set masterpiece Reservoir Dogs had a baby with Joe Carnahan’s balletic shoot-o-rama Smokin’ Aces while trying to throw in a little of Andrew Dominik’s criminal underworld sleaze à la Killing Them Softly, you might end up with Free Fire. Unfortunately—and despite its inherently funny ’70s milieu and ironic John Denver soundtrack—Free Fire is mostly vacuous Tarantino-lite fare. Yes, there are some funny moments and some well-shot action sequences, but some of the characters—which there are simply too many of—are interchangeable and hard to sort out. Once the bullets start flying in every direction, one of the henchman cries, “I forgot which side I’m on,” which perfectly sums up the hard-to-track chaos. And as far as figuring out who has allegiance to whom, forget about it. It’s a double- and triple-cross free-for-all. The three most fully formed characters are Hammer’s wisecracking Ord, Copley’s smarmy Vernon, and Michael Smiley’s bullying Frank. Their performances are worth watching, but while I like Larson, she brought so little to her role as Justine that she could have been exchanged with almost any actress. Fans of violent, comedic crime stories will no doubt enjoy this slight romp, but if you’re looking for substance, look elsewhere.
Anna: I agree that there are too many characters to keep straight, and recalling who shot whom and for what reason seems impossible a day after seeing the film. Its backbone is in the humor, some of which garnered a genuine chuckle from myself, and more seemed to tickle our fellow audience members. Having a film that’s set almost in its entirety in one location is a smart move budget-wise, as long as your script has the energy to stay away from monotony. At 90 minutes, Free Fire manages to keep from feeling too long, and the quick wit and snappy one-liners flying from side to side keeps everyone on their toes along with the rapid gunfire and occasional explosion. It misses the mark on having any real grit. While there’s no shortage of blood and profanity, it does feel as you said, Tarantino-lite. Hands down, my favorite character was Vernon with his sweet ’stache and blue disco suit, scrambling from henchman to henchman trying to convince someone to retrieve the briefcase of cash. He had me laughing, which I think is the whole point of this film—that and everything that can go wrong with an arms deal inevitably will.
Glen: You’re right on about the single-set costs. The film’s budget was a scant $10 million—pocket change in today’s average $200 million blockbuster budgets. That said, its opening weekend brought in a hair more than $1 million. Maybe it will pick up. The film’s got a 66 percent critics’ rating on rottentomoatoes.com. And as you note, Murphy’s Law is certainly at work in the story. What adds to the absurdity is why it all goes wrong so quickly: Two of the opposing henchmen had an unconnected-to-the-deal altercation the night before, and when they see each other, tensions quickly escalate. Interestingly, most of these guys are terrible shots, and all of them are pretty good at taking a bullet. They all get wounded and scuttle around on the dirty warehouse floor shooting at each other. I have to say, I appreciate this mayhem to the choreographed nonsense we frequently see when the hero can shoot on the run and never miss. Is there a moral to this story? Maybe. Violence begets violence (Matthew 26:52). There’s no honor among thieves (Proverbs 29:24). These are not exactly groundbreaking revelations, but Free Fire definitely has a better sense of humor about it than the Bible.
Anna: Free Fire doesn’t let everyone win; in fact, quite the opposite. No one’s walking out of this gunfight unscathed, and a bullet wound or two is actually pretty lucky in the long run. Blood, sweat, and dirt continuously mix and stick to everyone and everything, and by the end everyone is a tattered and filthy mess. After a particularly wild explosion involving propane tanks, Vernon starts to wrap himself in cardboard armor, which he claims is his “protection from infection.” These little absurd moments are a reminder not to take the film too seriously; it’s supposed to be a funny, filthy, shoot-’em-up ’70s-style ride, with a mess of characters that are all pretty sleazy. While I wouldn’t stretch so far as to say Free Fire is trying to teach its audience a moral lesson, the themes you mentioned are definitely present. I don’t want to spoil who gets away with what and who doesn’t, but the film is nothing but action until the very end. Is it worth 90 minutes in front of the big screen? If what you want is a lot of gunfire and some zingy dialogue, then maybe so. Personally, I think I could’ve waited to catch this one when it makes its way to Redbox or a streaming service. It’s worth seeing, but maybe not worth the price of a theater ticket.
Sun Screen is written by New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at email@example.com.