Imagine taking a relatively innocent childhood scenario, a Nerf gun battle, and trading the darts for real bullets. That special brand of borderline awkward violence rife with shouted insults and little accuracy doesn’t seem well-fitted for a film, especially in age where action and crime films are more stylized than ever. However, “Free Fire” takes the concept and runs with it, resulting in a refreshingly simple but original crime story that simultaneously subverts and buys into expectations.
Writer-director Ben Wheatley, who has become a name associated with off-kilter British fare, trades in his usually high-concept storytelling for a barebones approach. It has a rather unassuming plot: all business Justine (Brie Larson, “Room”) sets up a trade between a group of IRA members and a kooky arms dealer. Tensions rise, then explode, and pandemonium ensues. The story is noticeably unimportant here: all of the above exposition happens within 20 minutes of the film’s opening; the rest is pure, unadulterated gun play.
The lack of complicated plot naturally leads to a heavy reliance on characterization, and it’s hit and miss as to whether it works. Some of the actors are more than game to tackle their roles. Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) plays against type in a standout role is as hippy hitman Ord, who brings a hilariously aware brand of meta-humor to the proceedings. Similarly funny and electric is Sharlto Copley (“District 9”), whose gun runner Vernon is a pitch-perfect parody of eccentric criminals found in so many genre films. Larson is similarly wonderful per usual, however her character teeters of the edge of hollow, a problem the characters outside of the lead roles are victim to. Since the plot offers little room for character development, the opening needs to flesh out its characters in grand fashion; with such little time, there’s not much opportunity to make the large array of secondary characters extend beyond stock character types.
Wheatley’s direction allows for the weaknesses found in the script to become buried under an exceedingly fun and ridiculous sideshow of violence, a procession that feels as authentic as it is preposterous. His style allows for the showcase moments to pop out when they need to elevate the slow feel of the rest of the film, finding twisted humor and beauty in even the most rote of moments.
Ultimately, “Free Fire” feels like an experiment in simplicity; one that succeeds in its goals of crafting a mindlessly entertaining and different crime film but mostly fails in creating lasting plot moments and characters to elevate its premise. It’s worth the price of admission for its weird and unique nature alone. Just leave your brain at the door.