It’s been twenty five years since Reservoir dogs burst onto the indie film scene, using a secluded
warehouse as the key setting and witty dialogue to create suspense, humour and memorable
violence. Most notably, it launched first-time director Quentin Tarantino to super stardom. Over two
decades on, it stands as one of the greatest crime films of the twentieth century and a clear
influence on Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire.
Free Fire is brave enough to attempt something I’m sure many audacious directors have wanted to
achieve, yet for reasons of pacing, character and narrative were never able to crack: a feature
Perhaps it was the monumental success of Mad Max Fury Road, a film which is effectively a two
hour long car chase yet was a critical and commercial hit, that made room for this kind of film. And
while Free Fire is nowhere near as innovative as either of the two films mentioned above, it is still
an entertaining watch.
The film centres around a gun deal gone wrong, with two sides pushed to either side of a
warehouse and alliances quickly being tested. What is important about a film concerned with this
sort of highly staged action is that a clear sense of space and location is established. Wheatley
mostly fails on this point. Constantly I found myself struggling to tell where a character was and
who was near them, instead most shots feel like hero shots created specifically for promotional
material: Armie Hammer aims and fires a gun directly at the camera, Brie Larson runs across the
space with gunfire coming at her from all fronts, Sharlto Copley ducks behind a pillar, with the
camera looking up at him. They make for impressive visuals but you find yourself struggling to
comprehend where characters are placed and who is shooting at who. Wheatley never slows the
pace down to take advantage of long shots to map out the location, something the film desperately
Interestingly it is when the gunfire briefly stops that the film is at its most interesting, ceasefires and
deals are made, alliances are formed and mysteries are investigated, Wheatley’s dialogue is
jagged and witty and is delivered by some of the most charismatic actors in the business, packing
more of a punch than the many wasted bullets.
The film’s high point is the use of cause and effect. The film moves like a Rube Goldberg machine,
every little bit of dialogue, action, or piece of information shared sparingly, adds up to a rapidly
moving sequence of events, a characters black eye leads to small snippet of dialogue leads to a
confrontation between two individuals that leads to gunfire. Wheatley masterfully uses plants, red
herrings, Mcguffins and plot twists to keep viewers invested. It’s a shame that one of the main
mysteries of the film solves itself early, with very little payoff, instead making time for gunplay.
Performances for the most part are strong. Sharlto Copley steals every second he’s seen or even
heard from behind a piece of debris. Copley’s gunrunner Vernon is described as someone
misdiagnosed as a child genius and has never let it go. His performance is hilarious, perfectly
capturing the stupidity and cowardice of Vernon with a fast talking charm and exceptional delivery,
leaving the audience laughing at every line that comes out of his mouth. Armie Hammer’s Ord and
Cillian Murphy’s Chris are the brains of the respective crews opposing one another, Murphy
performs with realism and authentic empathy, while Hammer is cool headed, carrying an American
swagger and apathy that contrasts Chris’s humanity. Character actors like Noah Taylor and
Michael Smiley are serviceable to the film’s pulpy frenetic feel and are a fun addition.
The real disappointment of the film is Brie Larson as Justine. The academy award winner is
arguably the biggest draw for audiences, yet she feels as though she just walked off the set of
Kong:Skull Island. She plays the same archetype, a confident feminist in the machismo 1970s, it’s
not a bad performance, but it feels lazy and uninspired, especially for an actor of her capabilities,
though some of the blame is to be put on Wheatley’s script as she is initially established as able to
hold her ground with the tough guys yet she quickly becomes a damsel in distress when the guns
start firing. One sequence, where Taylor chases her through a hallway, plays out more like a
stereotypical Slasher film than a stylish crime comedy and is rather jarring.
Ultimately, Free Fire never reaches the heights of the influences of Tarantino, Brian DePalma and
executive producer Martin Scorsese it wears on its sleeve, but it does carry its own distinct style
and quality, acting as an immensely fun and well structured, if forgettable, comedy.
Free Fire may not land a Bullseye, but it does manage to hit the target.
Free Fire is playing at selected cinemas.