Review: Free Fire on DVD and Blu-Ray
This review contains spoilers.
Make no mistake, Ben Wheatley is a director who brings unique ideas to the table. Actors love him (the extras here highlight just how much) and you’ll find some cinephiles who adore Kill List or High-Rise. On the whole though, I find him a director who falls flat in his execution.
The originality is there, but the final product often falls short of the concept, or too far outside the remits of accessibility. Free Fire is yet another example of this. The premise – an arms deal going wrong to the point where everyone is vying for their life in one huge shootout – sounds ridiculous upon first hearing it, but at its core really is a rather superb idea.
Some of the best films (12 Angry Men, for example) never leave one room and work magnificently. It just means you task yourself with a taller order than a typical film. There’s more weight on you to craft a script that’s interesting enough to withstand the singular setting. The dialogue has to truly excel.
Wheatley pretty much gets there, but only just about. He sets up a myriad of brash characters, who like to front and posture at one another, in a macho fashion. Two sides; the buyers and the sellers, but also a third party who are described as the “ambushers”, thrown in the mix to worsen the situation.
The beginning of Free Fire works by leaning on the amicability of these testy criminals. It’s a nice touch – no character here really wants things to explode into violence; they’d much rather make the deal and leave with their lives. So you get a lot of the alpha-types attempting to diffuse the situation. Civility among criminals is always nice to watch, in my book, because you don’t naturally associate villains with such a quality.
A non-diegetic ticking sound is used in the background, to reinforce that notion that this delicate situation could go explode at any moment. And, of course, it does – when Stevo (Sam Riley) insults someone he is meant to be apologising to. The first shot is then let loose and the film’s shootout scenario begins.
The geography of the stand-off is great. As is revealed in the extras, Wheatley has it all planned out meticulously in his head; who is where, how wounded they are and where they are headed. Wheatley stresses that he tried to make the film “closer to a real gun fight, but only a little closer.” There’s still intentional room left for exaggeration.
Many of the shots land, leaving everyone injured in some capacity. But as the blood begins to flow, the humour is elevated too, turning what could have been a perfectly tense gunfight into more of a comical farce. Some of the comedy works, but overall it brings down the effectiveness of this short little tale.
It’s lines like “I forgot whose side I’m on” and actions like Armie Hammer’s Ord tickling someone that mark the moments where the comedy goes too far. Would either really happen in a real shootout? I doubt it. Such farce lowers the integrity of the actual characters, who on the whole are quite well crafted, given how many of them there are and how short the available screen time is.
Amidst the great male cast (Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley and more) is Brie Larson’s solitary female Justine. Though presented as arguably the smartest (or luckiest) of them all, by having her prove the last person standing, her character isn’t really given as much devotion (screen time) or as crafty dialogue as many of the others.
This is a fun watch, but one which doesn’t quite hit the heights that it should. Wheatley’s ideal seems a little beyond his reach. In choosing the play for farce, a lot of the quality is drained from the overall effectiveness of this explosion little narrative. It’s worth a one-off watch if you like Wheatley or over-the-top gun fights, but if you don’t like an overly comical lilt to your action films, then this might be one to steer clear of.
The extras are short but insightful. The Making Of shed some light on the shooting process, such as every actor needing to be there all day every day, because they might appear in the background of other shots.
In a direct interview with Wheatley he points out one key reason why he set his film in the 70s – because mobile phones would ruin the idea immediately (characters would be able to call out at will).
There’s also a little interview with Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, in which they sing Wheatley’s praises.
Image credits: STUDIOCANAL