Cinema history is filled with tense scenes featuring gangsters with short tempers, and itchy trigger fingers, and more than a few culminate in a brief standoff, that feature bullets flying around the room. The new film Free Fire aims to take those tense, action packed moments, and stretch it out to the length of the film. The film is set in the 70’s in Boston, and a large majority of the rather brief 90 minute run time take place after a weapons deal goes south, as the characters fight for survival. The premise is truly that simple, the film starts with two groups participating in an arms deal, one that doesn’t even start smoothly. Within short order, the tension boils over, and all of the posturing that the characters had done up until that point become the basis for the firefight that ensues. The conflict from that moment on, becomes all about survival, as each character, along with the others on their side, work to take out their rivals, with all parties involved showing their true colors.
The plot itself is paper thin, as there isn’t really anything in the way of a story, but the first 20-30 minutes explains all of the basics, and succeeds in introducing all of the major players. There is little to no back story given for any of the characters, but thankfully the actual introductions for each character gives you everything you need to know about the role they are meant to play. What quickly becomes clear is the dynamic of each group, as the two factions share a similar, and familiar gangster movie lineup. They each have their leaders, the alphas of the group who command respect. The two leaders then have their trusted right hand advisor, along with their irresponsible, and intellectually impaired lackeys. Each group is rounded out by a liaison of sorts, who knows who all the players are, and do their best to keep egos in check, hoping cooler heads will prevail. These are fairly basic archetypes, but they all serve their purpose through the course of the film. The reason the fighting starts is rather comical, and given the nature of the initial breakdown in relations, it was nice to see that the guns were not immediately brought out, but that a logical escalation took place. There are some moments prior to the shoot out, that look to be setting up some intriguing moments later on, but unfortunately they are never paid off.
Given that this film takes place entirely within a run-down Boston factory, having familiar character types, as well as a basic set up, allows for the least amount of exposition, and puts the focus squarely on the action, and the tension as to who is going to make it out of the film alive. Nobody in this film is particularly a good guy, but the film certainly leans one way in terms who you are supposed to be rooting for. The cast is thankfully pretty good, though nobody really stands out among the pack. The biggest character is Sharlto Copley’s Vernon, the leader of the group selling the weapons, whose over the top nature plays right into Copley’s wheelhouse. Vernon is obsessed with his style, and the first time a bullet even goes near him, he worries more about his suit, than his safety. Copley is quirky, and a slimeball, but never crosses over into being annoying or a detriment. The other big name member of his team, is Armie Hammer, who plays the liaison for the weapons dealers. Hammer’s character Ord is a smooth talker, and his chemistry with Copley is one of the better pairings. The two characters might not get the most screen time, but they are two of the more memorable characters. Their contemporaries on the other side of the fight are Cillian Murphy, and Brie Larson. Murphy is ok as an Irish mobster, but his character breaks down to just somebody who doesn’t trust Copley. His trust issues aren’t unfounded, it’s a given for an arms trader, but there is little more to his character than that. Larson is also underutilized, as she is not heavily involved in the shooting, nor is she given many character moments. The rest of the cast is merely present, the acting isn’t bad, but they do not add anything to the film, with the exception of the two lead cronies, Sam Riley and Jack Reynor. Their interactions with each are pretty good, and lead to some comical moments as the deal breaks down.
The unremarkable characters are not the only detriment to this film however, though they are indicative of the larger issue, that this concept, of one long shootout, doesn’t work unless there is substance, and there really isn’t any. Had there been revelations throughout, or something unexpected happened, it would have been more compelling. However the film is a tad predictable, and overly repetitive. Once the shooting starts, the cast simply hides from bullets, groans in pain, drags themselves from cover to cover, and shouts threats and insults at each other. None of these moments are enough to sustain the film, and the action itself is slower paced, so that isn’t enough to keep you invested.
Ultimately Free Fire is a novel concept, but is too middle of the road to amount to anything. Had the film been an all out comedy, there could have been a lot of fun and memorable moments. Conversely, had the film been grittier and more serious, it could have been a tense character study. The film ends up being neither of those things, and as a result is an entirely forgettable film, which is a real shame given the talented cast.