Film Review: Free Fire

An apolitical gun merchant and an IRA buyer meet in an abandoned factory building to do a deal in this mordantly funny chronicle of escalating disaster.
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The place is an abandoned Boston factory and the time a mid-’70s awash in scruffy facial hair, insipid pop music—cue the John Denver cassette tucked away inside a lumbering minivan—and macho posturing galore.

The middlemen are Americans Justine (Oscar winner Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), whose mission is to broker a deal between South African gun dealer Vern (District 9''s Sharlto Copley), a peacocking preener in a Savile Row suit, and his partner, former Black Panther Martin (Babou Ceesay), and IRA foot soldier Chris (Cillian Murphy) for a tidy cache of nearly 100 M-16s and ammunition. The location: an abandoned factory-turned-warehouse rapidly devolving into a wasteland of unwanted junk and crumbling concrete walls abutting dirty, tiled floors.

The exchange hits a snag right out of the box: The promised M-16s are actually AR-7s. Not what was agreed upon, Vernon concedes, but hey—they're here and they'll get the job done. Which might have been all well and good were it not for loose-cannon, heroin-sniffing henchman Stevo (Sam Riley), who's nursing a battered face ("I look like I tried to fuck a reluctant panda bear," he laments, as though there were any other sort of panda) and is capable of souring any deal, poisoning every compromise and pissing off anyone who has the misfortune to have anything to do with him. And lo and behold, he and opposite-side counterpart Harry (Jack Reynor) have a beef to settle, one that involves Harry's underage niece and some very ungentlemanly behavior. Let the hairy macho bullfight, whose prize is a briefcase stuffed with cash, begin.

It's inevitable that Free Fire will be referred to as U.K. director/writer Wheatley and wife/co-scripter Amy Jump's Reservoir Dogs, and the comparison isn't without merit: Both are stories of florid (dis)honor among outlaws rife with hyper-articulate badinage, as the willfully clueless Vernon (he of the exquisitely irritating personal motto "Watch and Vern!") designates it. The unity of time, place and action is positively classical—once all the dramatis personae assemble in the warehouse it's all closed-loop, all the time—and everything plays out to its appointed end with the inevitability of profane fate. It's an extended Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote sketch, except that the farthest anyone ever goes is behind a pillar, beneath a pile of debris or up a short flight of stairs, and they never, ever stop talking.

Make no mistake, Free Fire is funny, but it's not the sleek, pop-culture funny ha-ha Tarantino debuted in Reservoir Dogsand has spent his career polishing to a high shine: It's the caustic humor of guys (and a girl) who know they were dealt a losing hand before they even realized there was a game, and differentiated largely by how long they're willing to pretend there's some chance things might work out for them. Given the size of the cast, it's a marvel that viewers are never left at loose ends; characters may wail that they've forgotten whose side they're on, but onlookers willing to pay attention are never in doubt from move to move.

Yes, two-thirds of the film's running time is indeed taken up by an epic gun battle—to the degree that the word "epic" can be used to describe something more like a dusty trench war than a Sergio Leone gundown—but rather than eclipsing the script's intricate web of relationships and shifting alliances, it throws them into high relief. And for anyone who wants to quibble that the ’70s setting is just reason to wallow in tacky disco jackets, wide lapels and meticulously blow-dried hair, it's not: The absence of devices—first and foremost, mobile phones—is the fire that keeps the plot boiling.

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