A handful of character actors and an Oscar-winner walk into an abandoned factory, decked out in the finest ’70s polyester suits and most garish wigs imaginable. They’re all packing heat. Most of them have brought their baddest attitudes as well, the kind of hair-trigger tempers that might seem unwelcome when purchasing several crates of machine guns. It seems like things will go wrong, and quickly enough, they do, pitting a gang of IRA terrorists against a cadre of weapons dealers in a drawn-out standoff. In this film, Free Fire, almost every second sees its well-rounded ensemble ducking behind pillars and firing potshots at each other. But it’s not telling much of a story.
Free Fire comes from Ben Wheatley, a British director adept at mixing grim horror and brutal violence with sly humor and cinematic verve. His last effort, High-Rise, was a grim, mind-warping adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, but one that seemed to intentionally hold the audience at a distance. From its period setting to its absurdly straightforward premise, Free Fire seems designed to have more fun, to offer ultraviolent thrills in a confined setting and rack up the tension in real time. Instead, once the bullets start flying, everything grinds to a halt.
This is not the Shakespearean comedy of fungible alliances and eagerly batted repartee that I hoped for going in. Free Fire is a pure slog—a loud, brutish, gritty mini-spectacle that’s impressive only in its devotion to simplicity. As the action begins, there are the IRA guys on one side and the arms dealers on the other, with free agent Justine (Brie Larson), a go-between who set up the meeting, in the middle. Once those battle lines are drawn, there really