Free Fire is billed as an action comedy, but it’s neither exhilarating nor hilarious. It’s not bad or mislabeled, it’s just more understated than either of those terms would suggest, especially for a film that is essentially an hour-long gunfight.
Set in late ’70s Boston, the film opens with a clandestine arms deal between two cadres of lowlifes. The buyers are led by Chris (Murphy), a cool, collected Irishman, and the sellers are led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley), an arrogant and ineffectual South African. The first third of Free Fire is fire-free. As each step of the transaction is carried out, everyone acts tough by spouting out sexist, homophobic, macho BS (the film rivals Reservoir Dogs in average F’s/minute) save the lone woman, Justine (Larson), who brokered the deal and deflects said bullshit from both sides with practiced ease. When the tension finally erupts—as it obviously will—it comes from a combination of minor slights, misunderstandings and petty beefs rather than a big, duplicitous double-cross.
And then the fire is set free. From the tone of the film: irreverent, cheeky and other such synonyms, one might expect the violence to follow suit, something in the vein of Kingsmen: The Secret Service with bombastic stunts, gore galore and a wink. Free Fire has more in common with Blue Ruin, however, in that everyone is more or less inept. The abandoned factory where the shootout (and entire film) takes place becomes a sort of playground for posturing children playing at real war. Instead of running and gunning, the previously puffed-up thugs cower for cover and shoot blind. Director Ben Wheatley captures the scene with a keen eye, following groups and stragglers as they crawl and limp for safety, hurling sarcastic obscenities at each other as often as bullets. The effect isn’t used entirely to shock, nor entirely for comedic effect, but feels both realistic and absurd within the context of the action genre.
The ultimate effect is a story less about violence than the colorful characters who are so bad at it. Armie Hammer (whose visionary parents deserve a medal for literally naming him Armand Hammer) charms as the suave, no-nonsense Ord, the most seemingly capable of the bunch. Then there’s Stevo and Harry (Sam Riley and Jack Reynour), a couple of bumblebutts whose rivalry helps spark the firefight. Sharlto Copley (District 9), however, takes the cake as Vernon, a transparent blowhard who was “misdiagnosed as a child genius, and never got over it,” and whose favorite catchphrase is “watch and Vern.” That kind of absurdist character, paired with the its incongruous but effective acoustic ’70s soundtrack and a not-too-light, not-too-serious tone, make Free Fire an interesting oddity not to be overlooked.