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Free Fire, co-written and directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise), is a hilarious British action comedy that makes the most of a great cast and a wacky premise – a group of criminals meet in an abandoned warehouse to conduct a black market arms deal, where a small disagreement escalates into a full blown shootout.
At a brisk 90 minutes, the movie oddly takes its time before the main attraction kicks in. It’s understandable to want to properly establish the various principal players before the shooting starts, but a lot of the early scenes can come across as a bit directionless at times. While much of Free Fire embraces a certain spiraling sense of madness and chaos, the beginning might have benefited from a tighter focus.
The criminals are a likable, colorful bunch with distinct personalities. Cillian Murphy’s Chris and Armie Hammer’s Ord stand out as the most level-headed and pragmatic gunmen on their respective sides. Michael Smiley’s gruff, no-nonsense Frank has a hilarious back-and-forth with Ord, who he instantly decides he doesn’t like and Sharlto Copley is in top form as the butt monkey of both groups – an over-the-top, inept arms dealer that never fails to get a laugh. Brie Larson’s Justine is smart and capable, but grows increasingly flustered over the ridiculous situation she’s caught up in.
All of them, including the half of dozen or so I didn’t mention, have their standout moments. Since Free Fire is basically a prolonged, grueling shootout, its momentum is mainly derived from the escalating madness. Characters go from shocked to confused and from outraged to indifferent, as they crawl around, covered in dirt, glass and bullet wounds. This is a pretty graphic film, people – it doesn’t shy away from showing you gruesome injuries, most of which are punchlines to some very dark jokes indeed.
A strong script and impeccable comedic timing go a long way and Free Fire knows how and when to mix things up – the sudden arrival of an unexpected third party that seems to be gunning for everyone, or the realization that there’s a working phone on the second floor that they can use for help. It keeps the central conceit from growing stale and serves as the framework for shifting allegiances and lots of agonized crawling about.
The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. The slow start notwithstanding, once the action kicks in, Free Fire exhausts everything that it can get out of the setup and the character and then wraps things up. The ending is disappointing, in the sense that it’s utterly predictable – you know exactly who’ll end up alive at the end way before it comes to that. Free Fire works best when it’s at its most unpredictable and outlandish, so the ending doesn’t do it justice.
Overall though, the movie is consistently funny, has a great cast that deliver solid performances and isn’t long at all, making its few shortcomings a lot easier to overlook. As action comedies go, Free Fire is a pretty good time.