“Free Fire” is Tarantino violence at its most reserved and action movie cheesiness at its most palatable. From the studio that brought “Moonlight” comes a deliciously overblown action-comedy that deftly juggles multiple characters in a soured arms deal. The narrative, which doesn’t call much attention to itself, is well-constructed and weaves multiple strands together. The initial groups — the grunts, the buyers, the dealers and the suppliers — quickly become fractured after the first bullet is fired. The characters’ identities are established with enough evidence to predict allegiances — but also enough haste to give them space to deviate.
Director Ben Wheatley (“High Rise”) maintains this brisk pace throughout the film. The story starts in medias res, with Stevo (Sam Riley, “On the Road”) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti, “The Martian”) discussing a fight from the night before. As hired hands, they drive a seedy RV in which Stevo smokes crack before they arrive at a warehouse somewhere in Boston. Their clients, brothers Chris (Cillian Murphy, “Peaky Blinders”) and Frank (Michael Smiley, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”), are Irishmen who are buying guns through Justine (Brie Larson, “Room”). For purchasers of firearms, they seem benign in contrast to their henchmen. In fact, Chris almost seems like a protagonist after Justine responds to his flirtatious advances. The five are led into the warehouse by Justine’s associate, the calm and collected Ord (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”). There, they meet the eccentric and groovy supplier Vernon (Sharlto Copley, “Maleficent”). As negotiations proceed, unsettled beef between two participants incites the bloodbath.
As the shoot-out starts, the action is punctuated with moments of strained bargaining. There’s a real rhythm to the storytelling and great dialogue, which acts as a perfect counter against the risk of gratuitous violence. In addition, the characters are fairly economical with their bullets and by and large, the severity of the injury matches the depiction of the violence. By this selectiveness, the gloriously violent scenes pack a wallop that serve as emotional high points for the narrative. This treatment extends to the characters’ injuries. Any shot leaves the survivor handicapped— Justine, and many others, pathetically scoot themselves across the floor after shots in the thigh, arm and shoulder. As the bullet hole tally increases, the wounded grow concerned for their survival, which is always estimated to be about an hour and thirty minutes— a clever nod to the film’s actual runtime. After everyone has taken a few bullets, the movement becomes less dynamic and more predictable, but is redeemed by the ringing of a distant phone, signaling escape. The phone shifts the focus from slaughter to survival as bonds between parties disintegrate.
While the film feels devoted to action, its comedic side is well-served. Vernon, an ostentatious chauvinist in a look that can only be from the ‘70s, incessantly flirts with dealer Justine, despite her rejections. From the voice that squeaks to the boundless, undeserved confidence, Vernon is only matched by the grunt Stevo in comedic prowess. Stevo is given great material though, as a crack-addicted, numb-skulled, belligerent sleazebag whose volatility incites the first shot. While Copley and Riley pack most of the punch, each character is provided a snappy line and given a chance to shine. The only weak link is Ord, whose character seems to want to be comedic, like a straight man, but is undeveloped in the cartoon shadows of Vernon and Stevo.
“Free Fire” carefully spins a few plates that distract from the core concern of the film: who is getting out alive? As each character fights for themselves, killing, maiming, and languishing, it’s hard to decide who deserves to live. The humor that supported the story falls away as the survivors, like slugs, inch closer to fallen, distant weapons. The plates crash, and what’s left is rubble. The realization strikes hard.