The setup is simple: 1970s Boston. Two groups of criminals, one Irish and one American, meet in an abandoned warehouse on the waterfront to complete a mutually beneficial arms deal. Personalities clash, tensions are high, and when two henchmen from either side bring an explosive conflict from the night before to the room, everything goes wrong. Bullets fly and keep flying for the next hour-and-a-half. Occasionally someone says something funny, sometimes there’s a race to a phone or a briefcase, but everything ends just about how you expect.
That is to say, not well, and not even interestingly well.
Directed by Ben Wheatley and co-written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, “Free Fire” is one of those movies that thinks it’s more clever than it actually is and suffers accordingly. It’s a microcosm of senseless violence, of ricochets and “fuck you’s” shouted from behind concrete pillars and makeshift cover. Wheatley and Jump give the audience just enough character setup in the first 15 minutes to provide a baseline for how these characters will act in a gunfight, which — combined with sharp quips and personality quirks — is entertaining for a little while. After a solid hour of watching every single character crawl across the warehouse because almost everybody gets shot in the leg, though? You kind of just want Wheatley to get it over with. You know the ones you’re rooting for won’t survive, thanks to either blood loss or a bullseye to the forehead, and what’s the point in caring then?
The only thing that really saves “Free Fire” is its top-notch cast, which I have to list in its entirety because it’s just that good. On the Irish side, looking to buy M-16s, you have Cillian Murphy (“Sunshine“) as Christopher, the calmest of the bunch; Michael Smiley as Frank, an elder statesman of the IRA who feels that fact keenly; and Sam Riley (“Control“) as Stevo, an unpredictable junkie whose actions the night before trigger the chaos in the warehouse.
On the American side, bringing guns that are not M-16s, there’s Sharlto Copley (“District 9“) as Vern, a South African arms dealer who was misdiagnosed as a genius when he was a child and never got over it; Babou Ceesay (Showtime’s upcoming “Guerrilla”) as Martin, Vern’s right-hand man and voice of reason; Jack Reynor (“Sing Street“) as Harry, an ambitious henchman who can’t control his temper; and Armie Hammer (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) as Ord, a nonchalant negotiator with a magnificent beard and a penchant for smoking pot even as the bullets pepper the dirt around him.
And somewhere in there is Justine, played by Brie Larson (“Kong: Skull Island”), an intermediary for Vern who only puts up with pathetic come-ons and misplaced chivalry just as long as it suits her own needs. Justine is the most nebulous of all the characters, and predictably the one whose allegiance is not what it seems. Larson doesn’t have much to work with here and gets pretty pigeonholed as the token woman, which is a shame. People (like me) who go into “Free Fire” wanting to see how the future Captain Marvel handles herself in an action movie will probably be disappointed (see “Kong” instead!).
Surprisingly, Riley and Reynor provide the most memorable performances in this film. Riley makes Stevo erratic and dangerous from the first shot, and Reynor displays a talent for comedy of which I never knew a “Transformers” alum was capable. Hammer and Copley are worth noting, too, for offering some peak Hammer and Copley performances: smooth as butter from the former, and uproariously bizarre from the latter.
In spite of the cast’s best efforts, though, there’s just not much here. “Free Fire” lacks the urgency and tension of something like “Reservoir Dogs,” and the entire 90-minute running time feels like the third act of a movie you caught on TV an hour into its broadcast. You feel like you didn’t miss much, but at the same time, you missed everything important. Ultimately, it’s just not satisfying, and you wish you’d watched “Reservoir Dogs” instead.