An arms deal devolves into a warehouse shootout.
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Sharlto Copley
Initial Review by Lane Davis
A few weeks ago, I was hanging at a friend’s house, everyone having a few beers and enjoying the summer evening, when my friends says, “Hey, check this out.” He goes back to his bedroom and brings out his newest toy: a loaded AR-15. We all held it; nervously coddled it. It was smaller than I thought it would be, and heavier. And then it sat in the corner of the room, like another presence coolly keeping to himself in the middle of a party. Everybody there, all registered Democrats, were both fascinated and terrified by this bogeyman and finally my friend’s wife told him to put the gun up. Whatever you think of guns, you can’t deny that they draw attention.
Guns are more than just a means to an end; there’s something emotional about them. And holding an AR-15 in your hands (or an AR-70 in the case of this film) just feels oddly stimulating. They help your Irish guerrilla armies. Or they help you feel powerful in a society that has otherwise stripped your power. Or they just help you sleep better at night. Guns are powerful because they make you feel something, and that’s why I think “Free Fire”, as a film, works as well.
There’s nothing overly magical about the filmmaking in “FF” and that’s part of why it’s so enjoyable. Sometimes just doing the basic stuff—shooting and tracking in a competent way—is payoff enough. The premise here is simple: a gun fight breaks out in the middle of an illegal arms deal. Brie Larson plays a two-faced arms intermediary representing Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley who are trying to acquire guns for the IRA back home. Armie Hammer, who was sort of just born to play a dashing rogue, is her contact trying to assuage the deal with Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay. There are some hired snipers trying to spoil the party. There’s something about a phone line. Whatever. None of that other plot stuff really matters. What matters is the guns. If you want to know what the film is about, well, it’s about an hour and 15 minutes of people shooting at each other.
One of the things I love about MMC is that it’s helped me define, for myself, what it is that I truly value in a movie and why what I value should be different than what I value in other mediums like TV. One of the reasons I loved “FF,” then, is because it’s a film that could only be a film. It’s an encapsulated look at something that none of us will ever experience. It transports us to a place we could never ever go and it does things that only a film could do. In a way, we’ve been somewhat ruined by the amazing TV of the past decade because we too often get bored unless there are well-defined heroes and villains moving through highly constructed arcs. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that—God bless TV and all it‘s given us, but what was amazing on film thirty years ago just doesn’t pass muster today because TV can often better hold our attention. But there were some really cool scenes and good acting here, and it shouldn’t be missed. Unless it’s on premium cable, nobody’s head is getting popped like a grape by a conversion van. That’s a movie thing, both because of the violence and the cost of filming something like that in a realistic way, and it’s a pretty friggin’ cool movie thing at that.
One of the other things that I think film can do better than any other medium is portray violence, and I absolutely love how “FF” brought us there. I mentioned “John Wick” at the beginning of the review, and I think that’s a good comparison point. For as many bodies and as much blood that was spilled in that movie, the violence there was almost surgical. Quick and painless for the most part.
But “FF” deals in a reality of gun violence we don’t see much in other mediums. Unless you get shot through the head or the heart (and there are exceptions even to that, as we see), it ain’t gonna be quick and painless. Guns are one of the most efficient ways humans have created to kill things, and even then it’s not that efficient. The film might have gone a bit overboard in dragging things out (and I use the word “dragging” sardonically since it seemed like half the characters dragged themselves around the film most of the time) but I still found it entertaining and sickeningly fun to see who was going to bleed out first.
It’s not that there aren’t things to criticize here: I felt Larson was underused and while I’ve already extolled the minimalist plot aesthetic here, there could have been a bit more story. I ask most films to cut 15 minutes; but here, adding 15 minutes of a stronger sub-plot might have been helpful.
In sum, I liked “Free Fire” for its throwback aesthetic and its commentary on the chaos of gun culture. It didn’t try and do more or say more than it set out to do and say, and I appreciate that. You might say, it stuck to its guns.