Boston, 1978 and there is a deal planned for tonight. Two sets of criminals have arranged to meet in this factory warehouse, and though they are wary of one another it's amazing how you can force yourself to get on with people when there is a lot of money at stake. Two of them show up in a van, brother Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), the former nursing some painful bruising after a recent skirmish in a bar to find they are a little late and the others were waiting for them. The man with the guns, Ord (Armie Hammer) appears shortly after and the Irishmen who are willing to pay for them, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), plus their go-between Justine (Brie Larson), are all set to go - but things can go wrong very quickly, can't they?
The cultiest of cult British moviemakers of the twenty-first century, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, reteamed shortly after their adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise with another plot placed in the nineteen-seventies, though this was far less satirical and far more action comedy based. How much you laughed, however, was entirely dependent on how far you were impressed with swearing, as the dialogue was far saltier than any of the seventies movies they sought to pay tribute to, and that included the work of Martin Scorsese who was on board as an executive producer, presumably to lend some associated importance rather than overseeing the project in a hands-on fashion given this was filmed in Brighton, not the United States.
In fact, there was a feeling of a collection of actors, many of whom were fairly high profile with Larson emerging from her Oscar win, playing dress-up here, especially when that dialogue never rang true as from 1978. What it did sound like, with its "Shut the fuck up!" or "What the fuck?" was something from the nineties, which triggered a recognition of a different filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, not someone you would think Wheatley and Jump would have needed to reference at this stage in their career, but here it was, a Reservoir Dogs rip-off from a team who should have been standing on their own two feet (or, er, four feet) and concocting something a lot fresher or more daring, instead of simple emulation.
Fair enough, they would have been starting to try to get into the movies during Tarantino's heyday, so if they wished to kowtow and tug the forelock that was up to them, but seeing as how the other homage was to Wile E. Coyote who would be eternally injured over and over for giggles, Free Fire did look rather lightweight. When the words coming out of the actor's mouths had them calling each other "retard" or "sex pest", once again if you had seen enough seventies flicks you would be taken out of the action to be reminded this was a facsimile straight from the mid-twenty-tens - and beard oil? In 1978?! No macho man worth his salt would bother with that back then, they'd simply let that facial furniture grow and maybe, just maybe, run a comb through it occasionally to dislodge the occasional crumb.
So if this had a tin ear for the period, were there other compensations? Once again the strength of Wheatley and Jump came from their withering opinion of human nature, and there was nobody here with any nobility once they wound up crawling around in the sawdust with bullet holes hampering their progress. Once the first twenty minutes established these were men (and one woman) not averse to using violence to get their way (the Irish characters are never mentioned in connection with terrorism, a cop out if that's the trappings of the real world they were toying with), the rest ensued as a shoot-out which descended into utter confusion as they essentially forgot what they were fighting about and were simply blasting an endless number of rounds in the hope they would survive the night, or before the cops arrived, whichever was first. You could well regard this premise as a microcosm of any society where conflict becomes the reason anyone endures, nihilism telling you life is pain and suffering, and the best you can do is laugh at someone having a worse time than you are. If that cynicism held any appeal, Free Fire pushed those buttons with snappy urgency. Music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.
[Studio Canal's DVD has an audio commentary with Wheatley, Murphy and Jack Reynor, and a featurette as extras.]