Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Every once in a while, there comes a film that has a simple that is almost too simple, and yet it ends up being more complex than a Christopher Nolan film. Mad Max: Fury Road is a popular example of this. A majority of the film is one long two-hour car chase, but there are enough small moments throughout and at the beginning and the end that create a beautiful story that isn’t bogged down by unnecessary exposition. I could probably write an entire essay on the subtleties contained in Mad Max: Fury Road, but that might be best saved for another time. John Wick is another example. A man fights his way through members of the Russian mob because some punk killed his dog. A dog that symbolizes everything John Wick lost in his life. It’s a simple (maybe even stupid) premise for a film that works because of its artful story telling, and well-choreographed action sequences. A recent example of this style of film is Free Fire, directed by Ben Wheatley. What is essentially an hour and a half shootout contains enough small, subtle moments to create a film that potentially rivals that of John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Free Fire stars Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Noah Taylor, and Jack Reynor as a group of arms dealers and buyers. Everything is going smoothly in which the group buying the guns is playing it cool with the group selling the guns until a minor altercation breaks out between two of the hired hands. From that point on the film is closer to an every man for himself free for all shoot out in the warehouse in which the deal is taking place. It’s a story that on paper doesn’t sound very engaging, but for this film, it works. There could not have been a more perfect cast for this film. A story that relies on a simple premise needs good acting to make it believable and enjoyable to watch. The cast of this film manages to make this film enjoyable and engaging from start to finish. There is very little exposition in the film, which means characters need to show their true nature through their actions. One of the characters in the film is introduced by taking “smack” as a solution to a headache problem. Throughout the rest of the film, that same character is constantly reaching for his drugs as a way of coping with the ensuing mayhem. Armie Hammer’s character is first seen trying to make everyone comfortable and ensure a smooth transaction. During the build up to the big fight, he is constantly trying to smooth things over, until it becomes every man for himself. It’s small things like this that make you feel like you know the characters, or at least the type of people they are, intimately, without delving into the unnecessary back story. The film drops you right in the middle of this arms deal, with no prior knowledge of who these characters are, what they ate for breakfast, who their family is, or why they are there.
For the first time while watching one of Wheatley’s films it seems like he has a full story fleshed out. It’s not like High Rise or A Field in England where they work for about two-thirds of the film and then the excitement fizzles out at the end. High Rise was based on a novel of the same name, but Wheatley took liberties with the source material and changed the ending, which loses a lot of the impact the novel had. A Field in England just devolves into some kind of a psychotropic mess of something that is left open to interpretation. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of Wheatley’s other films I mentioned; in fact, I liked both of them, I am just commenting on how unfinished they seemed compared to Free Fire. The ending of Free Fire, when compared to other similar simple-premise films, is pretty generic and unimaginative, but I cannot think of a more perfect way to end such a ridiculous film. The simplicity of Free Fire works to the film’s benefit.
The one disadvantage I found Free Fire suffered from was a lack of set structure or familiarity. Very little time is devoted to exploring the full extent of the set, as the characters enter the warehouse. In a way, this helps because the director doesn’t want to introduce too many plot aspects too early. But, when the bullets start flying it makes it difficult to see where the characters are in relation to each other. The only time the location of a character is revealed within the grand design of the warehouse is when another character is shooting at them. One could argue that this lack of setup helps add to the mayhem and tension of the situation, but for me I found it to be more of a distraction that adds to the tension. I imagine that Wheatley could have had it both ways since there is still the surprise element of the numerous characters involved.
Free Fire is perhaps the most enjoyable, good film I have seen in a while. It has humor, it has action, and it’s a good story in spite of how simple the premise was. It felt like something I imagine a young Quentin Tarantino could have made with its dark sense of humor and its bloody action sequences. The film manages to keep you engaged in the events transpiring from start to finish, while also helping you to care about some of the characters, even if they don’t play a significant role in the story as a whole. It’s an impressive feat of a film that deserves more recognition than it got during its limited theater release.