Movies that become cult classics have intangible qualities in common that endear them to audiences and give them staying power. I think Free Fire is going to become one of those. It’s a film laced with subtlety and nuance, begging for repeat viewings to delve into the nooks and crannies.
Ben Wheatley directed and co-wrote alongside Amy Jump. They had worked together previously on Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), and High-Rise (2015) so their familiarity played out well in the final product. The script they crafted was great, thriving in a minimalist approach laid a solid foundation for the story to play out. In particular, the dialogue is incredibly fun. Backed by a really strong ensemble cast who could not only handle the sharply written repartee but shine in those moments. I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to direct. The chemistry among the cast is very strong and I think it speaks highly of Mr. Wheatley. Considering the rundown warehouse serving as the set, he did a fabulous job utilizing the environment and keeping his actors there in the moment.
In regards to the cast, Shaheen Baig deserves credit for putting together a wonderful ensemble. From the star power of Brie Larson to a more eclectic choice like Noah Taylor, there are really no small parts in this film. There are no bad performances in it either, everyone is strong top to bottom. Actually, some of the less familiar faces do a great job of stealing scenes and punctuating their characters. The most pleasant surprise for me was Armie Hammer. His recent role in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) didn’t give him much, so it was good to see him in a more forward role. His character, Ord, brokers the arms deal but has no real affiliation which gives him a uniquely self serving position. However, when it comes to the most fun character to watch…it’s undoubtedly Sharlto Copley. There is just something infectious about the guy and it’s not just the accent, although that’s part of it. Playing Vernon, the arms dealer, he is acutely aware of how his accent plays and its effect, not only on other people but its versatility in his cadence. Shifting in between menacing and absurdity like a snake.
Cillian Murphy and the aforementioned Larson play Chris and Justine, respectively. Buyers looking for guns to arm (what I assume is) an IRA like organization while sharing a reciprocal attraction that is complicated by both their business relationship and eventually…a whole bunch of bullets. Murphy’s thick Irish accent adds an additional layer to the international tone and Larson grounds us with her stark American opportunism. Michael Smiley did a really good job as Frank, Chris’s right hand man and an enforcer of sorts. Smiley had worked with Wheatley before on Kill List a few years prior and helped to nail down the Irish cornerstone.
Enzo Cilenti played Bernie and Sam Riley played Stevo, a pair of burnouts who are basically way out of their league, hired to back up Chris and Frank. The pairing offer up some of the film’s funniest moments even as the action intensifies. On the other side of the deal Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor play fuck-ups of their own, Gordon and Harry. Designated drivers of sorts, the two starkly contrast Bernie and Stevo in both temperament and conviction. Pitting the teams against one another makes for some good fun, and draws strong performances from the whole group. Not to be outdone, Babou Ceesay rounds out the primary cast playing Martin. Serving as Vernon’s business partner, and seemingly the voice of reason throughout much of the negotiation process, he has a rough go of things but makes sure to have a say before the final bell.
A handful of other things stood out to me right away, namely the movie’s cohesive visual style. Production designer Paki Smith crafted an aesthetic fitting the tone of the film snugly and let the strengths of the movie speak for themselves. As a period piece set in the late, Emma Fryer’s costumes were very well done and identified each character’s social standing at a glance. The loud and colorful wardrobes stand in such stark contrast to the relatively colorless interior, it’s a wonderful use of juxtaposition by the production team. Liz Griffiths did a very good job with the set decoration, making every inch of the cluttered and dilapidated industrial warehouse feel authentic. Utilizing that interior to its fullest, Laurie Rose got down in the trenches with some very gritty cinematography. Many of the shots are up close and personal as the characters crawl around navigating the limited safety provided by random debris. The use of lighting and shadow was showcased very well, especially early and late in the film as characters navigate the bowels of the deteriorating factory. As the movie reaches its final act, the action is at its peak and the work by the stunt and effects teams amplify the intensity but don’t stray too from the authenticity that ties everything together.
There is no smoke and mirror act, no bait and switch in the advertising. The title of the film and trailers don’t shy away from the fact it’s a shoot ‘em up. It’s a black market arms sale gone exactly as bad as it could, but one in which the characters are more fun to watch than anything else. Of course there is more going on with the story, but it’s essentially a 90-minute shootout. Just long enough for the story to reach its conclusion in a timely manner, but not so long that the novelty wears off.
Recommendation: Go see this one if you’re interested in having an old fashioned good time at the movies. Don’t shy away from the R rating too much, it’s mild in comparison to Logan or Deadpool, so this one can still be enjoyed by the whole family but isn’t recommended for very young children.