TIFF 2016 REVIEW: 'Free Fire'

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Let’s get this out of the way: I liked Free Fire a whole lot more than The Hateful Eight. There, I said it. **pauses to duck various things thrown by Tarantino fans** Now, why bring up “The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino”? Because Free Fire accomplishes so much of what Tarantino set out to do in his 2015 film in only 90 minutes, without any of the stifling obsession with technique or pushing the violence to pointless extremes. Just like Tarantino, director Ben Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump pare their movie down to a single location, fill it with tense criminals, and sit back to watch their creation explode. But not only is the action more involving, the characters are funnier and more watchable, and you’re not utterly exhausted at the end.

Wheatley has been steadily building his profile over the past few years with releases like Kill List, A Field in England and last year’s High-Rise. For its part, Free Fire takes on the crime genre, following the protracted fallout of an arms deal gone sideways, only with surreal and often hilarious results. The filmmakers wisely rely on a well-balanced cast to pull it off: Armie Hammer as a hirsute, comically put-together dealer, (Oscar winner!) Brie Larson as a tough mediator between the buyers and the sellers, Cillian Murphy as a no-nonsense IRA fighter looking to arm his revolution, and Sharlto Copley as the flamboyant, dim-witted supplier.

Brie Larson as Justine, who helps bring the arms dealers and buyers together.

The principals are backed up by Michael Smiley (BBC’s Luther), Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Noah Taylor (Game of Thrones), leaving us with a varied company of performers that doesn’t weigh down the film. They each have little moments that help raise the movie up from a pure shootout (which literally forms the bulk of the film’s runtime).

The action is remarkably logical (except, perhaps, how much ammo the characters have). Bullets don’t just fly about the location without consequence; they ricochet off things, blasting out shrapnel that does almost as much damage as the rounds themselves. The concept of a “one shot, one kill” that’s so prevalent in other films is thankfully absent: characters get minor wounds that knock them down and make them crawl about in the dirt, prolonging the tension. In this way, Wheatley and his team are far more proficient at recreating the chaos of a gunfight than many other working filmmakers, with all their belt-fed miniguns and shakey-cam cinematography.

Of course, all of that still falls under technique, and you could be forgiven for seeing Free Fire as an exercise in proving what’s wrong with today’s action films. Perhaps where the film truly sets itself apart is how it doesn’t try to be obviously “about” anything in particular, other than a really bad night for some pretty bad people. There’s no attempt to say anything about racism, criminality, justice or any of the things that are crammed into other films (messages that risk being cheapened by the genre violence). Quite simply, Free Fire puts entertainment first, and that’s more than can be said about a lot of “action” films.

Free Fire gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

Ben Wheatley’s new film just had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – if you’ve seen it already, what did you think? Should more directors follow Wheatley’s lead? Or is the film all flash and no substance? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!