Free Fire and all the images you see in this review are owned by StudioCanal UK
Directed by Ben Wheatley
I honestly don’t get excited to see movies all that often. For one, I’m gonna see the damn movies whether or not they’re any good, and on top of that the only movies that seem to get a big marketing push nowadays are big franchise pictures like the MCU, the DCCU, and even The Fast and the Furious. This movie however was the exception to that rule as I caught the trailer a few times and fell in love with the concept right away. A real time gun fight set in the seventies with Sharlto Freaking Copley in it!? Damn! That’s almost too good to even show up in my local theater, which… spoiler alert: it didn’t and I had to drive to the one forty minutes away. See, while everyone was gushing over The Nice Guys last year, it just didn’t quite do it for me as much as it did for everyone else, and this seems like the kind of thing that was not only going for that kind of look and feel but was much more in my wheelhouse as far as the overall tone and the central conceit. Needless to say that this has been a long day coming and I’m hoping for the best while bracing myself for… well not the WORST as the trailers showed way too much promise for THAT to be the case, but at the very least I hope it’s better than mediocre. Does this manage to live up to my rarely lifted expectations, or am I doomed to be disappointed by a film that showed a whole lot of promise? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with essentially two groups of colorful people in the gaudiest seventies fashion meeting in a warehouse to broker a gun deal. One side is led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and a few Irish gangsters (Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, and Enzo Cilenti) while the other side is led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates (Babou Ceesay, Jack Reynor, and Noah Taylor). In the middle are Justine and Ord (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) who seem to have brokered the deal between the two sides and therefore probably have the most investment in everything going smoothly. Of course, we wouldn’t have a movie if everything was hunky dory, and eventually bullets start flying after a few altercations and outburst from some of the less professional individuals on each side. That’s it. The rest of the movie is watching to see who gets killed next as they trade bullets and yell insults at each other for the next eighty minutes, and it’s pretty damn awesome! Does anyone manage to make it out of this factory alive? Was there a more sinister plot in play than anyone on either side realized before they started shooting at each other? Can we please get Sharlto Copley a Marvel movie or something!? He’s like the new Nicolas Cage and I want to see him in everything!!
Bottle films aren’t the easiest to pull off as the limitations in scope requires a massive amount of compensation in terms of character development and fleshing out the setting in order to hold an audience’s interests. When it works, you get movies like The Hateful Eight, 12 Angry Men, and ESPECIALLY Reservoir Dogs. When it doesn’t… well the less said about Devil, the better. It’s honestly one of my favorite genres out there because of how unique and interesting it can be when it’s done right, so maybe I’m a soft target for something like this but Free Fire is easily one of the best films we’ve gotten this year and is damn near a lock for my best of the year list. I mean I’m not even sure exactly how to explain just how good it is. Everything it tries to do it succeeds at. It’s funny, it’s well paced, the actors are amazing, and you’re always on the edge of your seat watching it; laughing at the absurdity and the characters while anticipating the next gunshot or extremely violent death. Scorsese’s name is all over the marketing on this as he’s an executive producer, and while I’m sure that’s mostly there for marketing purposes rather than an accurate reflection of his involvement with the film, you can absolutely see why this is something he’d want to put money into and ensure got made.
So to start off with, what are the elements of a good bottle film, and how does this film succeed in bringing those qualities to the forefront? For the most part, a bottle film is about focus. Whether it’s a slasher movie like Don’t Breathe where the dumbass robbers are trying to escape a killer, something like Trespass with Nicolas Cage where he’s trying to negation his family’s survival during a home invasion, or even the Family Guy episode Brian & Stewie where the two of them get locked in a bank vault; the idea is to limit the options available to our protagonists so that we can we see how they get out of a stressful situation on limited resources. Sometimes it’s simply keeping sane in a rough situation, other times it’s finding a way out of an enclosed space without getting a bullet in the head. This movie (pretty firmly in the latter category) understands this on a very fundamental level and manages to craft a scenario that’s not only interesting to see play out but is filled with characters who are likable enough to care at least one way or the other how things turn out for them as the situation escalates further and further. In fact, that first fifteen or so minutes before anything happens is vital to this movie working as each character gets to have a moment to define themselves for the audience so that we know who it is that’s getting shot at when things go to hell. With a cast this aggressively small, every one of them needs to bring something to the table and the movie really does deliver on that; even the one or two that are clearly the most expendable.
Now the biggest challenge that a bottle film like this usually has is making the characters not only interesting enough to have any sort of stake in what happens to them, but to have their decisions makes sense for the situation they find themselves in. That was my big problem with 10 Cloverfield Lane which I might have been a little too harsh on, but the film felt manipulative in how it got the characters to act the way they did in the movie which shattered the illusion for me as I was watching it. In this movie I’m sure you could nitpick or find little things that don’t make sense (I have a few issues with it myself that I will get to soon enough) but for the most part the movie never feels like it’s cheating or straining believability just to keep the story going or to make sure the movie is paced well. It’s not necessarily that the characters in these kind of situations have to make the RIGHT decision, but the decision HAS to be motivated enough that it’s plausible they would have make these choices whether or not they were the smartest. It also helps that pretty much everyone take a bullet rather early on which was a rather brilliant move as it limits everyone’s mobility and limits some of the options that the characters can take; preemptively shutting up the smartasses in the audience (such as myself) from coming up with how WE’D do things MUCH differently in the movie. Also, with that very specific restraint of them not being able to run or move particularly quickly, it creates all new ways of building tension and allows for some creative solutions that would be way too impracticable in any other situation. The movie knows what it’s doing at all times and that’s really what it takes for something like this to be successful. The closer you focus in on the scope of the story, the more details can be brought forth from even the tiniest of moments, yet it also makes any sort of flaws that much more noticeable; hence why it’s so impressive when someone gets it right as much as they did here.
Now the movie isn’t perfect as I have a few minor issues here and there with the overall execution. As good a job as this movie does of juggling all the players and the pertinent elements of each scene, there are a few brief moments where they lose a step and almost drop one of the balls. There was at least one character seemed to disappear from the action for a good fifteen or twenty minutes with no explanation of where they were or why they were quiet for so long. Similarly, and this could be something I just missed, I feel like there should have been a lot more guns in play than there were; especially considering that the deal that went bad was for assault rifles in the first place. I understand the ammo for said rifles are in a different place, but considering the situation they were in, at least ONE of them could have easily found a way to get that ammo which would have turned the tide of the fight rather quickly. Again, I could have missed something REALLY obvious or maybe I would have been the dumbass who got killed first by trying to go for the rifles, but it was something that was in the back of my mind the whole time. Other than that, there’s really nothing else I can think of to complain about this movie. The script is extremely tight, the tension is there throughout, and even my own minor annoyances in regards to some geography and character choices (okay, and there was ONE character death which felt a bit off tonally) pales in comparison to everything else this movie gets right.
Considering how well this movie is put together and how strong the characters are across the board, I can’t imagine this movie not working for most people. Then again, bottle films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea as the format is often much more suited for television than a full feature length movie. Even if this isn’t quite your thing, I still whole heartedly recommend it as one of the better examples of the genre that we’ve gotten in recent years (I’m tempted to say it’s better than The Hateful Eight if for no other reason than the less excessive runtime) and it’s just so much fun to watch a filmmaker craft an exciting and compelling narrative around an all-star cast that is completely invested in the parts they have to play. That’s it. I’ve got nothing else to say except to go freaking see this thing while you have the chance! Now that I think about it… it’s an action film about a bunch of criminals that’s also funny… isn’t DC still looking for a director for Suicide Squad 2?