Free Fire is a stronger concept than film, hamstrung by poor storytelling and execution, despite the best efforts of the cast.
Irish Republican Army members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have traveled to Boston in order to acquire weapons. With their intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) and associates Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) in tow, the group meets a man named Ord (Armie Hammer) at an abandoned warehouse. Taking them inside, Ord introduces Chris and Frank to arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), who is supplying the guns. Chris is frustrated when he learns Vernon is giving them the wrong kind of rifles, but reluctantly agrees to go through with the arrangement.
Tensions between the two sides start to boil over when Stevo discovers Veron's accomplice Harry (Jack Reynor) is the same man who attacked him the night before, and they get into an argument that threatens to derail the entire operation. Frank and Vernon are unable to get everything under control, and through a course of events, the night devolves into a shootout, with the two factions doing everything they can to survive and hopefully make away with the money from the deal.
Directed by cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley, Free Fire generated a lot of buzz as it made its way across the festival circuit (including a stop at SXSW) thanks to its all-star ensemble and promise of pulpy genre thrills that looked to be reminiscent of something like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The movie consists of a collection of interesting pieces, but sadly, it never adds up to a cohesive whole. Free Fire is a stronger concept than film, hamstrung by poor storytelling and execution, despite the best efforts of the cast.
The screenplay, co-written by Wheatley and Amy Jump is arguably the project's greatest weakness, as there's very little to the overall narrative. The main reason why everyone starts firing at each other is an extremely weak catalyst that requires the ultimate suspension of disbelief, making it difficult to truly buy into the premise. It also doesn't help matters that the extensive cast of characters are mostly thin sketches with vaguely defined roles, so audiences will have trouble getting invested in that respect. Since the film is set over the course of one night in a single location, nobody's looking for Free Fire to feature profound arcs, but the creative team rarely gets beyond the surface level during the set-up. In addition to mediocre characterization, the dialogue Wheatley and Jump crafts comes across as bland (save for the occasional one-liner) and never sticks out, as the criminals mostly hurl insults and jabs at one another before shooting their guns again.
A good portion of the 90-minute running time is eaten up by the elongated shootout, and Wheatley's handling of it is a mixed bag. He makes frequent use of handheld cinematography, and while it never sinks to the levels of incomprehensible shaky cam, the technique still makes it difficult to follow the action. The director struggles to establish the geography of the warehouse, so at times it's hard to tell who is firing at who from where. He also doesn't do anything particularly interesting visually with the camera, filming Free Fire in a straightforward manner, which is disappointing. Granted, Wheatley was limited with what he could do given it's all in the warehouse, but filmmakers have played around with the "bottle episode" restrictions in the past and created some engaging set pieces. At times, the pacing can be a drag, since Free Fire is essentially an extended gun fight that lacks any meaningful emotional or personal stakes. What should be a fun romp comes across as boring.
The actors do all they can to elevate the material, but none of them are given that much to do. Even the most memorable characters don't leave a sizable impression because their parts are so severely underwritten. The likes of Copley, Murphy, Hammer, and the rest are all entertaining enough at face value, doing riffs on classic gangster movie tropes like the sleazy businessman and professional, no-nonsense criminal. However, that alone can't make up for the various shortcomings of the movie around them. None of the main players make for an interesting individual, which ultimately hurts the final product. As talented as the cast is, even an Oscar winner like Larson can only do so much. Free Fire feels like it needed more room to breathe in the early going and develop its characters before the fireworks start. As it stands, it's fairly empty.
Therein lies the movie's greatest problem - it's an exercise of style over substance and little more. Wheatley doesn't even make compelling use of the 1970s backdrop, and the plot as presented could have very easily taken place in any era (with some tweaks, of course) and made little difference. In contrast to something like Shane Black's The Nice Guys, the retro setting is there simply for aesthetics only, providing the filmmakers with a justifiable excuse for some American Hustle-esque hairstyles and costumes to dress its stars in. That certainly amps up the "cool" factor, but it does little to make Free Fire a better overall film. It tries to be a slick genre throwback, but comes up short of its aspirations.
In the end, Free Fire had a lot of potential on-paper and doesn't live up to it. If Wheatley and Jump had put more effort in the script to create a more coherent narrative and stronger characters, it could have made for a fun ride. As it stands, the film's destiny is probably to become a favorite among fans of Wheatley's previous work and little more. It's difficult to recommend for casual viewers, but those who were intrigued by the trailers might be inclined to rent it one day.