There are so many films out there that are unique and were overlooked during their release. “Free Fire” is one since there were only two people beside myself in the theater during the premiere. Set in Boston, Massachusetts 1978, a group of Irish gang members are meeting with another gang that are arms dealers. However, the meeting goes south and both groups are trapped in an abandoned factory and literally caught in a free fire. Once this free fire begins, the characters all have two goals: 1) take the suitcase full of money with them and 2) get out alive. Ben Wheatley tells three different stories with his directing, while having all his characters restricted to just one space.
The editing attributes to the beauty of this film. There are fast cuts during the free fires to showcase a feeling of adrenaline as each character tries to shoot each other. Music is only cued when the firing occurs, there is one particular scene that is accompanied by a chilling jazz composition with an incredible organ sound to stimulate anxiety when a major plot point is revealed after there was a negotiation for someone to leave and get help. The camera, with the editing, shows the viewer one thing but it actually tells something else beyond what we are being shown like an unreliable narrator. Although all the characters are confined in one location, this does not prevent any additional plots. There are three: a conflict between two characters that occurred prior to arms deal, a slight romance that takes an unexpected turn, and the mystery to who hired the snipers that were originally going to kill everyone. What is very realistic about the film is that when characters are talking to each other about one thing, there is background voices also talking these characters aren’t far from each other. They are all trapped and no matter how quiet they are, they can still be heard.
With a theme showoff between survival and greed, “Free Fire” gives you hints with what originally was going to happen if the arms deal wasn’t disrupted by the conflict between Stevo (Sam Reily) and Harry (Jack Reynor). What’s interesting about the film is that any character can choose to leave if they were quick enough but they chose not to because they don’t want to leave empty handed. Everyone wants to get ahold of the briefcase full of money rather than escaping with their life. As stated by Frank, “We can’t leave here empty handed.” Then there is Vernon who is constantly reminding any of his companions to bring him the case. While the theme could be survival, it is mostly greed because “Free Fire” shows how money can really influence people even during a life and death situation. This has been about money from the beginning till the moment before the credits roll.
The “Free Fire” cast all have unique traits attributed to their own characters that there isn’t an established main character because frankly, all the characters are terrible people much like the gang in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. The characters that stand out are Justine and Ord, who play devil’s advocate. Justine, played by the Academy Award winner Brie Larson, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and makes it clear that she is only here because she is in it for herself. Justine, who knows both groups involved in the arms deal, constantly switches sides when conflict arises. Dressed in a classy blue suit that in no means sexualizes her, Justine might be one of the best female characters ever written in the action genre. Rather than being the victim of the male gaze, Justine’s character thinks for herself and she is extremely tough and intelligent. After being shot, she is the only character that attempts to seal the wound by attempting to stitch it closed. This is what I enjoy about the film especially since Justine is written not only by Mr. Wheatley but also Amy Jump. Having a female writer in a movie that is dominated by male characters is refreshing because Miss Jump doesn’t write Justine as a damsel in distress. That is why at first glance, it seemed that “Free Fire” was going to fall with the cliché that the one female character present must have romantic feelings to at least one of the male characters. However, the movie surprises the viewers and one of the characters with a revelation. What is particularly interesting about Justine is that she embodies a contemporary femme fatale. She knows that Chris (Cillian Murphy) is smitten by her so when she gets caught in the free fire, she uses him to her advantage for staying alive while bullets fly. But love isn’t what Justine came for, nor will it be what she leaves with. Justine knows what she wants, the briefcase just like everyone else, but she employs a smarter method to get what she wants. As she says during an intense moment towards the end of the film, “We can’t all be nice girls.”
The other witty, wisecracking character who prefers to be narcissistic is brought to life by Armie Hammer –– who shines brightest with his performance. Ord, who spends the film smoking in the worst moments, plays bodyguard for Vernon (Sharlto Copley). His introduction, an establishing shot that tells just how big his ego as he struts confidently, clearly shows his side for the arms dealer while consciously teasing the older man from the Irish gang Frank (Michael Smiley). In fact, throughout the film, Ord teases all of the characters including those on his own side. To him, the free fire is almost fun and exhilarating. Although he is employed by Vernon to protect him, Ord goes against his wishes during negotiation with the Irish gang. Unlike Justine, Ord reaches for the briefcase only when it is safe to do so, unlike the others. He also showcases empathy in little moments throughout the free fire and is probably the only one who prefers to stop the shooting and leave with his life rather than the money. This empathy is shown very clearly with a medium close up of Ord when Frank recalls the last time he had a drink since he is a recovering alcoholic. Then, in the final act, all the conflict is put aside as Ord becomes more empathetic when he sees Chris crawling due to some wounds from the free fire and offers a hand –– even if Chris denies it at first. It’s almost like Ord’s narcissistic, witty interior was a red herring to all the characters (and the viewer) to hide his more empathetic side that cannot be expressed in this type of business.
As stated before, the characters are all stuck in an abandoned factory that is clearly uncomfortable to look at as the characters crawl through a dirt floor mixed with debris, accidentally get used needles pierced in their skins, and even mention how the dust is giving them allergies. It is an uncomfortable place to be caught in the free fire with as characters get shot are most likely infect the wounds. This composition of the set can be confusing to follow but Wheatley gives multiple establishing shots of the interior for the viewer to understand where everyone crawls/runs to.
Overall, it’s entertaining to watch all these characters at the brink of life and death still be jerks to each other –– almost like a “The Usual Suspects” feel to it. Besides the humor, these characters are complex yet not much is revealed about them. When information is revealed about certain characters not only are the viewers fed with new information but so are the rest of the characters present. Some take the information lightly while others are more humanizing i.e. Ord. It isn’t difficult to see why the critically acclaimed Martin Scorsese produced this entertaining film. It embodies the tone of his film “The Wolf of Wall Street” –– outrageous, entertaining, and dark humor. But even this stamp of approval from Scorsese wasn’t enough to bring people to the theater making “Free Fire” an underrated film that deserved more success and recognition.
“Free Fire” is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.
Directed by Ben Wheatley; written by Mr. Wheatley and Amy Jump; director of photography, Laurie Rose; edited by Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Jump; music by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow; production design by Paki Smith; costumes by Emma Fryer; visual effects supervisor, Murray Barber; produced by Martin Scorsese; released by A24. Running time: 1 hour 31 minute.
WITH: Sharlto Copley (Vernon), Brie Larson (Justine), Armie Hammer (Ord), Cillian Murphy (Chris), Ezno Cilenti (Bernie) Sam Riley (Stevo), Michael Smiley (Frank), Babou Ceesay (Martin), Noah Taylor (Gordon), Jack Reynor (Harry), Mark Monero (Jimmy), Patrick Bergin (Howie), Tom Davis (Leery)