It’s always a good idea to not let your personal life interfere with business. That’s especially true when your business involves lots and lots of guns.
Chris and Frank, members of the Irish Republican Army circa the late 1970s, are in the market for some guns. Lots of ’em. But it’s hard to procure automatic weaponry at the corner drug store. So they hook up with some middlemen, who hook up with some other middlemen, who eventually contact a South African arms dealer who just so happens to have some automatic rifles lying about.
Great. Free market in action. Bing, bam, boom, right? Well, except this particular transaction is, of course, wholly illegal. And it’s not like the IRA can just make a payment through PayPal and have the guns overnighted to their doorstep. Deals of this sort require a little more effort.
So one dark night, the business parties—IRA members, South African gunrunners, middlemen, henchmen, associates and family members—meet up at a deserted Boston factory to exchange a van full of guns for a suitcase full of money.
But then, as the guns are unloaded and the cash is counted, one of the South African’s henchmen—a guy named Harry—notices that one of Frank’s henchman—a relative named Stevo—is the same guy he beat up the night before for assaulting his 17-year-old cousin.
Fists are thrown. Guns are drawn. Seems that this once promising business partnership is just about to go into the red.
Harry has an affinity for John Denver music, so we do get to hear a lovely 1970s ballad or two.
Beyond that, I suppose we can give Chris a little credit for trying to help Justine—the only female participant in this dysfunctional transaction—to safety. Oh, and Stevo is seriously bummed when his brother, Bernie, is killed.
Stevo, weeping over Bernie’s body, calls his bro an “angel from heaven”—a bit of an overstatement, but sincerely meant. He also tells Harry that, “as God is my witness, I did not bottle [cut someone’s face with glass] that slut [Harry’s cousin].” Someone is jokingly referred to as a saint.
Stevo apparently asked Harry’s cousin to perform a certain sexual act on him: When she refused, he allegedly attacked her with that aforementioned bottle. During the deal, Stevo is forced to apologize for those actions. He begins to offer the mea culpa, but finishes with a crude sexual reference about what he supposedly did to the cousin.
Chris asks Justine whether she’d like to go out for drinks after the deal’s completed—an invitation that recurs a few times as the long, bloody evening wears on. Someone taunts Chris regarding his new crush using that old schoolyard rhyme: “Chris and Justine sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G …”
Someone tells another middleman, Ord, that he smells nice. “That’s your mother,” Ord responds. There’s a verbal reference to masturbation. We hear some talk about a henchman’s sexual relationship with his wife.
“Everyone dies,” Free Fire director Ben Wheatley told our select screening audience via Skype before the movie began. And while he overstated the body count a touch, it wasn’t by much.
About 75 of Free Fire’s 90-minute runtime is dedicated to one interminably chaotic gunfight. There’s more lead being slung around here than at a 1960s paint factory. Of the dozen or so folks who participate in the battle, almost all are shot multiple times, and the majority die from their wounds. It’s really impossible to tabulate every time a bit o’ bullet encounters a slip o’ skin, so perhaps we should simply tally some of the more notable injuries here.
One man dies when his head is crushed underneath the wheel of a van: We see the cranium essentially explode, though the victim somehow manages to shoot through the van’s undercarriage and simultaneously kill his killer. Another guy suffers a serious head wound. “I’m not dead,” he says. “I’m just regrouping.” He slips into silence, and most of the combatants believe he has indeed expired: Someone crawls beside him, looks at his head and says, “So that’s what brain looks like,” whereupon the injured man suddenly comes to, staggers around the warehouse a bit (a bit of white skull or brain exposed for all to see), threatens various folks, grabs the suitcase of money and finally expires for good.
Another guy is nearly cooked alive when he kneels in a puddle of gasoline and someone sets it alight. He survives that attack, though his hands and parts of his face look like charcoal briquettes. Shortly thereafter, someone shoots him in the head (we see a split-second spray of blood), putting him out of his misery. Another man gets skewered through the chin by a crowbar and then, with the same crowbar, is beaten to death.
People react to their injuries a variety of ways—screaming, cursing, crying, moaning, making jokes. Blood is everywhere, and a few seem to expire from having lost just too much of it. Justine seems to treat one of her wounds by clipping it shut with a safety pin. People are beaten, kicked and kneed in the gut or groin. One guy is tossed to the ground and hurled over a van. Folks get hit with rocks and rods. Someone cuts his hand on glass. Another is skewered by an old hypodermic needle. An explosion rocks several characters (but doesn’t seem to kill anyone outright).
CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE
If anything flies more frequently than bullets here, it’d be the f-word. I counted 239 of ’em, and I’d wager I didn’t catch them all. We also hear 15 s-words and scads of other vulgarities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and variations of “f-g.” Several people are called “c–ks—ers.” God’s name is misused about seven times, four with “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused at least eight times.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT
Stevo, still suffering from his beating the night before, asks brother Bernie if he has any aspirin. Bernie doesn’t, but he does have some “smack,” he says, slang for heroin back in the day. Stevo uses it then and elsewhere.
Ord smokes what appear to be large marijuana joints. (Someone tells him that he should lay off the pot if he hopes to shoot straight.) Others smoke cigarettes. We hear about how someone used to get drunk quite a bit before he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Once the shooting’s almost done, one bad guy asks another if he’d like to grab a beer.
OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS
Obviously, the whole movie revolves around an illegal gun transaction. Some people double-cross each other.
Some movies—even difficult, R-rated movies—demand a nuanced look. They challenge me as a reviewer; they force me not to ignore the problematic content, but to look past it for a moment to consider the story the filmmakers want to tell.
This is not one of those movies.
Ben Wheatley, the movie’s chipper, profane director, admits that he makes some seriously, wackily disturbed films (using a more colorful descriptor), and that Free Fire “is as grim as nihilistic as [most of his other movies].”
“I think you could take some cheery life lessons from it,” he adds.
We find no cheery life lessons in the unremitting violence of Free Fire. No moral core. No heroes to root for. Just a lot of villains, a lot of wisecracks and a whole lot of blood. Wheatley clearly did not make this movie to impress Plugged In or its audience. To criticize the film for its lack of prudence seems a bit like criticizing a rabid wolverine for its poor table manners.
But in the end, Free Fire looks a lot like one of the 1970s polyester suits worn in the flick. It’s loud. It’s tacky. And it doesn’t take long for the thing to smell really, really bad.