Watching the diminishing prospects of the doomed gunmen in Free Fire makes you wonder if there is such a thing as pyrrhic defeat.
Free Fire is a real-time, deal-gone-bad action movie (a distant cousin of Reservoir Dogs) with a nihilistic snicker, thick with a sense of futility -- the winners here are the ones who die without lingering too long.
It’s all played for rueful laughs, and there are a few. Armie Hammer (with heavy beard) accounts for most of them as an eccentric middleman in a cash-for-guns deal between IRA men (led by Cillian Murphy) and a South African nutcase (Sharlto Copley).
Everyone is seedy, suspicious, and trigger-happy. The meeting takes place in a rusty, abandoned factory. “Whatever they used to make here,” says one, “nobody wants it anymore.”
That kind of obsolescence is a theme. It’s set in the '70s, which accounts for some of the dreadful fashion, the John Denver music in the eight-track player in the weatherbeaten, Mystery Machine-era Scooby van. Even the factions mentioned -- South African secret police, the Irish Republican Army -- speak to the conflicts of a previous century.
The men behave as if they somehow know they are expendable footnotes, and are dangerous because of it. Efficient character sketches identify the trouble spots -- a dangerously stupid henchman, a careless addict, a hot-tempered thug with a grudge.
The first shot is fired, and the black comedy ballet of bullets commences, conducted in a fog of war. Ricochets and the uncertain loyalties of the middlemen (and middlewomen like Brie Larson) create hopeless confusion.
What follows is a kind of Waiting for Godot with guns. Isolated desperados cease to know who they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them (the movie is shot at Escher-painting angles to heighten this idea). Gunmen pause, at times, to address the murky ethos of this predicament, but that is secondary, by a mile, to their baser instincts -- when they have a shot, they take it. Marksmanship is poor, and wounds are plentiful.
When all is said and done and shot, national/political motivation and even survival are beside the point. Eventually, each individual wonders if he/she has a shot at a suitcase full of cash to be claimed (if you are a hopeless optimist) by the last person standing.
Perhaps it isn’t Quentin Tarantino that Free Fire draws from here so much as John Huston and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But it lacks that movie’s interest in morality. You may wonder what the point is, and John Denver, singing out from the decrepit van, provides the answer: "You fill up my senses...."
That's director Ben Wheatley’s aim here -- the flare of the muzzle flash, the sound of bullet hitting bone. And a wisecrack.