In what sounds like a pivotal scene in an action-thriller or the premise of a short film, the Ben Wheatley-directed Free Fire can be summarized in a single sentence: "An arms deal goes awry inside a warehouse, leading to an epic shootout." As an addendum, you could add: "And everybody's an asshole."
That's it. There's barely a story to work with, but that's not the point of Free Fire. It's designed to set up the bulk of its film — the absurd, chaotic and hilarious shootout between the characters and their ever-changing allegiances — and for what it sets out to achieve, it's a fantastic accomplishment.
Here's how they set up the shootout, not that it matters much. Members of the IRA are in the United States to procure some weapons for the fight back home. So with the help of two mediators in Ord, played by a delightfully pretentious Armie Hammer, and Justine, played by an icy Brie Larson, they arrange to meet with an arms dealer, Vernon, inside an abandoned warehouse. It's actually not a bad idea, considering the IRA members would likely want to test the weapons before making the transaction — which, unsurprisingly, they do.
There's some terse exchanges between some really flamboyant characters — Vernon, played by Sharlto Copley, is a caricature of the sleazy '70s businessman — but nothing that's going to provoke an altercation. That is, until one of Vernon's henchman points to an IRA member, Stevo, and claims he accosted his female cousin and hit her in the face with a glass bottle. The ensuing squabble eventually leads to the bulk of the film: The epic, sprawling shootout across the warehouse — with an increasing body count along the way.
The gunfight between the characters of Free Fire is less technically impressive — though it's still very good — as it is hilarious. You see, despite the fact that all the characters are from the criminal underbelly and deal with guns on a frequent basis, everybody kind of sucks at shooting. This leads to a lot of people getting shot, but in areas where it's more irritating than it is fatal. Case in point: Vernon being nicked in the shoulder, which, as Justine remarks, did more damage to his pompous suit than his body.
It also helps that none of Free Fire's characters are inherently likable. You might find a favorite, sure (mine would be Hammer's Ord), but you're not going to be gutted when people are eventually killed off. Everybody has their own agendas, none of which are remotely virtuous.
That Free Fire doesn't stagnate is a testament to Wheatley's creativity — he finds a lot of use in that warehouse, beyond just the characters finding cover in different places. Plus, with a sub 90-minute runtime, the charm of Free Fire's chaotic shootout resonates instead of becoming tiresome. Even an extra 15 minutes tacked on would've been taxing for the film, and its audience.
Most action films are remembered for an epic scene, or shootout, rather than the entire package: When I mention John Wick, chances are your mind will immediately go to its amazing nightclub scene. That's what makes Free Fire such a distinct property: It can't get the same treatment — the entire film is just an excuse for an epic gunfight. And what a sight it was.
Free Fire arrives in theaters April 21.
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