Free Fire (2017)
Directed by Ben Wheatley
It’s the best part of “Reservoir Dogs” for an entire 90 minutes; or “Green Room,” but where everyone is trying to escape with their lives; or “The Hateful Eight” with two more primary characters and none of that killer Tarantino dialogue. It’s the brilliantly tense, bitterly humorous, gun-slinging, Martin Scorsese-produced “Free Fire,” the most easily summed-up film of the year—an arms negotiation between an IRA-aligned Irishman (Cillian Murphy) and a snazzy South African gun dealer (Sharlto Copley) goes sour when their hired helpers (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, and Jack Reynor among them) let their emotions get the better of them. And it’s incredible.
Your worries that a film so contained and so simple couldn’t possibly hold your attention for an hour and a half are unwarranted. Director Ben Wheatley, who’s “High-Rise” in 2015 played with a fear of heights, chooses to get a bit more cramped this time around—it works much better. The distinct setting offers innumerable and unexpected ways to assist in the chaos. Like Jeremy Saulnier was able to do with “Green Room,” Wheatley gets crafty with his working space and invents new ways to keep his characters in the fight. Cinematographer Laurie Rose gets the camera into all the nooks and crannies to capture every angle of this disorderly mess of a shootout. There’s rarely a dull second. But unlike “Green Room” or any of Tarantino’s work, “Free Fire” isn’t here for gross-out tricks or buckets of fake blood. Some deaths (okay, spoiler alert, not all of them survive) are more extreme than others, but for the most part the violence is reasonable and not excessive.
The other aspects of the setting offer their own benefits—Boston, 1978: John Denver, turtle necks and shoulder pads, thick accents and peace signs. No cell phones. Characters like the gaudy and hysterical (and easily frightened) Vernon, played by Copley, fit right in. His witty dialogues don’t cut the tension, but certainly make it livelier. Armie Hammer, too—cool as a cucumber, not afraid to let loose a few zingers with impeccable timing (credit the writers, Wheatley and Amy Jump, for injecting humor exactly when their script needs it).
You might wonder why “Free Fire” would dare open so soon after the action juggernaut of 2017, “The Fate of the Furious.” It’s because they represent the opposite ends of the action spectrum. Where the new “Fast and Furious” chapter goes big with over-the-top stunt work, “Free Fire” keeps it tense and smart. Both play to their crowds. If you’re the type to find pleasure in gnawing your nails down to nubs, “Free Fire” has what you need.