FILM REVIEW – FREE FIRE. With Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley. Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use. 90 minutes.
In 1927, Laurel and Hardy released one of their most famous silent comedy shorts, “The Battle of the Century.” It’s famous because it contains the pie fight to end all pie fights. It starts with one pie being thrown, and then another in response, and then another, and then another… By the end, an entire city block of people are throwing pies at each other. Reportedly, the film used up the entire day’s output of a single bakery.
The reason for this history lesson is that FREE FIRE is, in effect, a remake of that comedy film, substituting bullets for pies. It starts slowly. A group of shady, comic figures are waiting for a meet-up at a warehouse. They are there to purchase guns. They are met by Ord (Armie Hammer), who has apparently arranged the deal. The dealers are led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley), who has deliberately brought the wrong rifles and is very concerned about keeping his suit clean.
Things get complicated when it turns out one of the underlings for the buyers was beaten up by one of the underlings for the sellers the night before, and the bad blood between them has not been resolved. This leads to one taking a shot at the other, and then the pies… er, bullets… start to fly. The remainder of the film consists of the two sides shooting at each other within the confines of the warehouse, sometimes hitting the wrong person.
As it escalates, neither side is willing to put a stop to it because once one of either gang gets hit, they now need to get back at the other side. It’s all very violent and since there wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all killed each other right off, it’s mostly flesh wounds until late in the film. Instead we get absurdities like Chris (Cillian Murphy) asking Justine (Brie Larson), his business partner on the deal, if she’d like to go out afterwards, or Ord making fun of Frank (Michael Smiley) for being old. There’s no great character development here, but since this is the action film version of slapstick farce, we shouldn’t be expecting any.
Instead, we watch not only the variations on a theme, but the plot details like the driver of one of the vans liking John Denver music, or one of the characters we thought had been killed suddenly opening fire on the others. This is an action film for people who are tired of getting bogged down with story, characters, dialogue or, indeed, the things we expect from most movies. It is visceral action all the way, with just enough cartoonish information so we can tell one character from the other even if don’t have much reason to take sides.
Like that Laurel and Hardy short, “Free Fall” doesn’t have much of a story to tell, but simply wants to keep escalating its slapstick premise far beyond what you thought possible. If you get the joke and are willing to play along, it’s a hilarious critique of action movies. If not, it’s just an hour-and-a-half of generally unpleasant people shooting at each other.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.