April 23, 2017.
What if Guy Ritchie actually made a great film? This question was toying with my mind after I got out of the screening for Free Fire. For those of you who don’t know Guy Ritchie, he is the director of Snatch (barf), the two new Sherlock Holmes films (gags), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (meh), and the new King Arthur film coming out in on May 12th (violently vomits on computer screen). The guy is able to create some pretty fun characters with interesting action scenes, but the humour in his movies rarely works and the stories start to fall apart and lose focus in the second act. This is where Ben Wheatley’s fun, hilarious, action-packed shoot-em-up film, “Free Fire” comes into play. Wheatley’s film is what a good Guy Ritchie film should be; colorful characters, really short run-time, and a fun romp with a simple premise.
Free Fire is directed by Ben Wheatley and stars Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, and Sharlto Copley in a 1970’s arms deal gone awry, and results in the two sides of the trade having a no-holds barred gun fight in an abandoned warehouse. The conflict arises when a goon (Jack Reynor), on Copley’s side, sees the man (Sam Riley), on Murphy’s side, who sexually violated and violently bottled his cousin the night before all because she wouldn’t give him a blowjob. Already sounds like quite the riot, doesn’t it? Like I said before, the runtime is very, very short. It doesn’t even cross the 90 minute mark. However; this is a good thing. Wheatley uses the first 15 to set up the personalities of his characters and throw us hints about what’s to come of his barebones plot. Copley’s Vernon, the “fearless” leader of the guns supplying side is the best thing about this movie. Every line of dialogue spewed through his warped accented mouth is ferociously entertaining and delightfully playful. His character is a microsim of the “idiot’s shouldn’t use guns” gun control theme that Wheatley is showcasing here. Armie Hammer’s acidly witty, neutral man Ord was also a treat, and his banter between the characters really elevated the comedy and the mood. If there was one character that disappointed me though, it was Larson’s character, Justine. She was supposed to provide the feminine take on a macho shootout, but she just felt like she was “there”. Little to no characterization was made for her and she ended up being the blandest thing about Free Fire.
Wheatley does something quite spectacular here and blends kinetic thrills with moments of stillness in such a short runtime. Whether the characters are are quipping across the warehouse, or Ord lighting up a cigarette for the umpteenth time, there are are quieter scenes to build the intricacies of the character. Wheatley also chooses to play out his movie as a silly romp rather than a serious shootout. None of the characters are ever serious (save for Cillian Murphy who is the only real realist in the film) and this allows the film to earn its playful nature. Nobody seems like they are really afraid to die, they just want to kill everyone else. All the characters are pretty much low life scum and I loved their banter just as much as I loved the violence. The violence manages to be a lot of fun without turning into straight up gore (one death breaks this rule). Wheatley actually simulated the whole shootout on Minecraft and drew up over 1000 storyboards because he wanted the authenticity and the timing to be perfect. This was a director on a mission and it translated well into the final product.
My biggest complaints with the film ended up being the first 15 minutes, and the ending. I think I might be biased here, but I was so excited to get to the warehouse and the shootout, my mind just bypassed the first bit. It sets up Cillian Murphy’s team and the central conflict but it was quite boring. The pace was just sluggish. It was only when Ord and Vernon show up where the laughs kept pumping and the pace picks up and doesn’t stop. It’s just the first 15 minutes that are a bit of a hike. Now let’s fast forward a hour and change later, with a sudden ending and terrible final shot. I mean you see the end coming, but it just comes to a halt rather than ends. The screenwriters may have ran out of ideas. That would be my guess. The last shot is a freeze frame that Wheatley tries to emulate from Scorsese films, only it feels like a second-hand Scorsese freeze frame, which is funny because Scorsese actually produced the movie. It just didn’t work for me and took away the big grin I was wearing during the movie.
Overall, Free Fire is a fun romp with colorful characters and exciting violence. I hope Guy Ritchie watches this one. He can learn a lot from it and use it to channel the skills he possesses. Save for a boring start, Justine’s blandness, and a disappointing ending, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is a well directed, well acted shootout more focused on thrills then plot development and is certainly worth your time.