RECAP: Free Fire

Free Fire (2017): Ben Wheatley

Would you survive a movie shootout? That’s the idea behind Free Fire. Get ready for characters who dislike each other and will sort their problems through firearms.

Trigger warning: the verb “to crawl” will appear many, many times in the following recap. Most of the characters crawl, shuffle, and slide to avoid being shot.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: In Boston in 1978, a weapons deal goes wrong and a bunch of criminals try to kill each other with handguns in an abandoned warehouse.

Hero (3/10)

Boston. 1978. An abandoned warehouse.

Ten people assemble in the warehouse to conduct an arms deal. The deal deteriorates until two sides of criminals, buyers and sellers, try killing each other.

The buyers are led by Chris (Cillian Murphy), an Irishman who hates the English. The main seller is a part-English man named Vernon (Sharlto Copley).

Neither character is particularly admirable, but Vernon is the more annoying and selfish of the two, so he’s our villain. I guess that makes Chris the hero.

Well, I’ve already said plenty about Chris. He orders several boxes of M16s. Vernon delivers AR70s, a decent automatic rifle, but less than and not what Chris ordered. Chris is upset about this–customer service doesn’t exist in the criminal underworld–but he maintains his cool throughout the movie’s catastrophes.

Chris on the right

Chris finds the courage to ask out Justine (Brie Larson), the American woman who helped organize the deal. She turns him down for reasons that will become clear later.

He also shows his unflappable nature when, after fighting with Vernon, he removes Vernon’s pistol clip from the handgun. Vernon pulls the trigger at Chris, but the gun clicks empty. Chris shows him the clip as if to say, “Ha ha, I got you,” and tosses the clip away. If someone pulled a trigger at me I would piss myself even if I knew the gun was empty.

Chris shows his true colors by negotiating free passage for Justine. She tries to hobble away, but other characters won’t let her. Chris is a decent guy as far as gang leaders go. Too bad he didn’t survive.

Villain (5/10)

Vernon enters the warehouse with his partner, Martin (Babou Ceesay), after Chris and his crew assemble. Vernon is one smug Anglo-South African. Justine calls him “an international asshole.” The misdiagnosed genius fell to the criminal realm, where he thinks he’s cock of the walk.

After hitting on Justine ’round the clock, Vernon tries to secure the arms deal with Chris. Vernon is upset with Chris’s lack of manners, like when the Irishman interrupts the arms dealer to say that he did not order the weapons being offered. Martin tries to explain that the guns are the best they could do on short notice and at that volume, but later, in an aside, Vernon admits that he will sell his M16s to Libyans.

Vernon in the slick suit

Throughout the shootout Vernon proves untrustworthy and cowardly. He’s shot in the arm a couple of times, and he cries that he will die soon. Justine examines his wound and says, “It’s mostly the suit.” The suit is from Saville Row, so it makes sense to feel bad about it.

Vernon, the kind of creep who calls his merchandise “girls,” has his gun jam, one “usually so reliable,” but he needs someone else to fix it.

As the villain, Vernon must endure the worst torment of the movie. He chases one of Chris’s associates upstairs. While trying to chop down a door, the other guy pours gas on the floor and lights it up. Vernon and his Saville Row suit catch fire.

That fire doesn’t kill Vernon. The guy might be a sneak, but he’s resourceful. Vernon finds a fire extinguisher and puts out the fire on his body. His hands are charred, but he kills the guy who burned him.

Vernon survived the flames, but not the movie. More details below.

Sharlto Copley is a cheeky bugger who lets his annoying flags fly in Free Fire. Dressed well, flirty in a creepy manner, I imagine Vernon to be a character close to Copley.

Action/Effects (6/10)

About one hour of Free Fire is an extended action sequence. The gun fire comes in bursts, when someone is impatient or desperate enough to change positions and draw fire.

Watching this movie feels like watching a paintball game with the world’s best camera work. Any movie set in a small area demands a strong sense of believable geography, and this one delivers. Early in the film, Ord (Armie Hammer) leads the weapons buyers through the warehouse and its extended corridors, stairways, and open floor. Later, when the weapons sellers join the deal, we watch them enter from a different way, walking across the long, open floor.

After the shooting starts, the two teams occupy opposite sides of the facility. Vernon and company hole up near the van and the boxes of empty machine guns, while Chris and his Irish sympathizers find cover farther away, nearer the staircase leading to the only working phone.

Bullets and blood flying

The characters carry small handguns, the kinds that fit in pockets and purses. Few rounds and low power, the bullets mostly miss their mark, but when they do they appear to hurt like a strong kick. Characters are mostly shot in the limbs, and never does a person bleed out from an insignificant wound. Later, characters get shot in heads and torsos, and those wounds quickly expire their victims.

The general lack of strong firepower allows the characters to chat between barrages. Ord mocks Frank (Michael Smiley) often for his age. Vernon begs everyone to stop shooting him. Stevo (Sam Riley) is high and an asshole, perhaps the biggest present, and Chris wants to get out alive and with the guns he bought but didn’t order.

Extended shootouts are not to be found, surprising given that there are dozens of machine guns present. The filmmakers find clever ways to aggravate the characters’ positions. The AR70 ammunition is locked in the red van, and the keys are on a person who is almost dead and lying in the center of the killing field. When anyone on Vernon’s team tries to reach the van and its exposed position, someone on Chris’s side shoots at them.

Two snipers open up on the shooters after the initial fray. Ord shoots back at them with a machine gun and bullets used to test the gun, the only time the weapon is used to kill another person. He runs out of bullets shortly after killing one. Chris shoots the other with another machine gun that someone else brought.

The ringing of a working phone changes everything. Characters break from the group to crawl toward it. Frank reaches it first, but Vernon pursues him and kills him before he can make a call.

The movie’s best effects come late, as people start dying in nasty, inventive ways. Vernon dies when he’s shot through the nose. Martin’s brain is visible through his hair. And Stevo, well, Stevo’s head is crushed beneath a tire. Gruesome stuff that the first two acts don’t foreshadow.

Free Fire is a slow burn action thriller. People are shot and scream like it, but there’s little gore flying around. Low caliber weapons force the characters to find cover and plot their moves rather than stand in the open and pull the trigger till the gun goes click.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Chris’s side of shooters includes Frank, a tough old bastard with a mustache to boot; and two idiots called Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb, but actually named Stevo and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

Stevo is the man who starts all the shooting. In the first scene we learn that Stevo got into a fight the previous night. His head is killing him, and his friend Bernie gives him some smack to cure it. “I look like I tried to fuck a reluctant panda bear,” Stevo says, probably the most intelligent thing he says or does in Free Fire.

Turns out that Stevo, who has a pregnant wife, spent the previous night harassing and beating a 17-year-old girl, whose cousin works for Vernon. Stevo recognizes Harry (Jack Reynor) as the man who beat Stevo so hard he needed compact on his black eye, and before Harry recognizes him.

Tension rises before they see each other, and then tempers flare. Harry attacks Stevo with a crowbar. Stevo strikes back. Stevo, high on smack, claims that he did not “bottle that slut.” That’s the language of the innocent, that is.

Chris, eager to get the deal back, beats Stevo and demands he apologizes to Harry for putting his cousin in the hospital. Stevo faces the man who beat him and says he’s sorry…that he came so hard in his cousin’s mouth last night. Way to win friends and influence people.

Justine, the ultimate survivor

Harry draws a pistol and shoots Stevo in the shoulder. Then all the guns come out and the killing starts.

Stevo might be on Chris’s side, but he’s more of a bad guy. Harry tries to steal the briefcase full of cash to help pay for his cousin’s hospital bills, making him a good guy. But I want to stick with the two teams.

Frank, the bald guy mentioned earlier, is an old-but-capable fighter. The recovering alcoholic might need a drink after he jabs a used needle into his hand crawling on the warehouse floor. AIDS had yet to significantly penetrate the US in 1978, so he might be safe from that, but surely he caught something.

In days past Frank might have led the gang that Chris leads, because he matches Chris’s wits and calm in each scene. Too bad he got shot in the head by Vernon as he tried to call out from the building’s only phone.

No character exhibits ups and downs like Stevo. He is the first person shot, and probably absorbs the most bullets of anyone. Stevo does smack in the middle of the shootout, and nearly overdoses from it, before rallying to attack Harry a last time, even getting his hands on the money, before dying in the most disgusting manner: having a van tire burst his skull.

Justine spends most of the movie as a good gal. She’s nice enough, though she tells Chris early, after he asks her if she’s FBI, “I’m IIFM. In it for myself.”

As the unfortunate object of the loathsome Vernon’s eye, Justine gains sympathy points she maintains throughout the movie. She rejects Chris’s date proposal, only to accept it later, only to take a raincheck on it in the end.

Justine also is chased by another man, after the combatants have negotiated her escape. She was one of two people to set up the deal, so her free passage sounds reasonable. I forgot why that guy was chasing Justine, but she gets him good. “We can’t all be nice girls,” she says before killing him.

Henchmen (4/8)

Vernon’s number two is a man named Martin, who “was a Panther but it didn’t work out.” Martin is shot early in the proceedings, and he survives a bullet to the head that exposes his brain. He’s an important character because he locks the van doors, and inside the van lies most of the AR70 ammunition. A couple of characters try to take the keys off him, but his bodies lies in No Man’s Land where it’s too dangerous to get to him.

We don’t hear from Martin again for some time. He lies on the ground “regrouping,” he says. When the moment is right, Martin pops up and wanders through the warehouse without fear of being shot again. He calls for Justine, who is nearly out of the hubbub. We didn’t know at the time, but he thought she was double-crossing him after the failed sniper attack.

Harry plays the hero of his own tale, defending the honor of his young cousin the day after Stevo “bottled” her. Several times he tries sidling away with the cash.

Justine set up one half of the deal; Ord set up the other. Unflappable, user of beard oil, and cocky walker, Ord enjoys the shootout more than all the others. He lights a cigarette mid-shootout. Later, he takes roll of the living combatants as if he’s a school teacher. Ord is the coolest customer, so he outlives many of the folks in the gun battle. But not all.

Stunts (5/6)

Action and stunt work can’t be separated much in Free Fire. Many bullets are fired and many people shot.

Difficult work involves crawling on the dirty ground through grit and grime. I’d say some characters crawl more than they walk. Put this movie on your resumes, actors, because you nailed it.

Vernon is set on fire, and he self extinguishes in a terrific stunt. Characters crawl through debris and junk, and one even stabs himself with a used needle. Should have cleaned up the set a little before shooting, geez.

I mentioned earlier that gore is lightly used. When characters are shot, we know it because they howl, not from visual cues. Gun fights don’t need buckets of blood, and I appreciated that.

Climax (4/6)

The characters start shooting at each other after a half hour movie time and they barely stop for the next hour. More than an hour in, a new guy arrives at the warehouse to check on his buddies, but which of the two warring sides are his friends?

Here are the people still alive after one hour of movie time: Chris and Stevo on one side, Harry, Ord, and Vernon on another, and Justine trying to escape. Chris lights up a smoke and advises Stevo to stay awake or he’ll die. You could say the same about any of these characters, though.

Chris leaves Stevo to crawl upstairs and check on Frank and the phone situation. Justine, crawling her way to freedom (shot in the leg, walking is tricky), reaches the first dead sniper and snatches his gun.

This enormous new guy walks through the warehouse with no idea what awaits him, at least until he finds a dead body in a different room.

The red van that houses the ammunition

Chris, after crawling up stairs littered with perforated print outs, creeps around a corner to find the is-it-lifeless body of Vernon. Vernon, his hands charred from a fire, shakes his hands and waits for Chris to come closer. He takes a shot, misses, and is out of bullets.

Vernon begs for his life. Chris says “I don’t think so,” and shoots him…in the nose! Whoa! Never seen that. No one remains to prevent Chris from reaching the building’s lone working phone. Chris calls some of his people.

Meanwhile, downstairs on the killing floor, Ord, limping around with the help of a crowbar, spots the power box for the phone lines. He reaches it and cuts the wires as Chris chats on the phone. Ord watches Harry try to steal the case of money and throws the crowbar at him.

The new guy reaches the warehouse floor and shouts for Frank, who is dead, and Chris, who is far away upstairs.

Harry, holding the crowbar, hides behind a column. He strikes the new guy in the leg and regrets it instantly. The new guy lifts Harry and throws him like a medicine ball. He lifts him again, runs forward with the man in a choke hold, and throws Harry over the red van.

Some time passes as the two combatants gather their strength. Harry reaches for a discarded pistol. The other guy steps on his wrist. Harry responds by taking the crowbar and jabbing it into his opponent’s mouth. Ouch. With another swing Harry kills him. Double ouch.

Harry finds the cash case again and very, very slowly approaches the van. He has the keys and the money. Ord shoots at him but misses. Harry gets in the van, cranks it up, blast John Denver again. We know about his sister in the hospital, so we want her to get the money.

Stevo perks up and actually shoots the van as it rolls through the dirt. He runs to the van and gets inside. The smack, it seems, has given Steve a second wind. A scuffle ensues about a gun. Steve digs his teeth into Harry’s wrist, but Harry recovers to kick Steve from the van, though Steve has the money case.

That van is circling, and slowly. You might say at a crawl. Stevo is on the ground, and the van is approaching him. Stevo can’t move for some reason. Too bad. The van drives over Stevo’s head as he simultaneously shoots Harry in the ass through the bottom of the van. Amazing stuff. The van runs into a wall and stops.

Seems like everything’s over. Chris stumbles back to the main floor. Ord lights up a smoke. The sprinklers flick on, and a wall mural reveals that the factory once belonged to Watson’s Umbrella. Good joke.

Chris and Ord, the lone survivors, take the money and are about to run. They make plans for a beer. Resting at the van, they decide to go Dutch at the pub.

Suddenly, someone shoots them both. Looky-doo, Justine is back, and she’s shot them from a long distance. She approaches the men. Chris is still alive. “I’m sorry you got in the way,” she says. She asks for a raincheck on their dinner.

Justine and Martin planned the double-cross after the deal was concluded, which is why she wanted to help Martin early, and why he sought her after he recovered from having an open wound in his skull.

Justine takes the money and limps her way to an exit. Beneath the door flash the red lights of the Boston Fire Department. Justine turns back, faces the camera, her mouth agape, and the movie ends. Did she get away? We’ll never know.

Jokes (1/4)

Two middle people set up the ill-fated arms deal. Justine and Ord know each other and know some of the criminals at the meeting. When the bullets start flying they head to opposite sides.

Because some, but not all of these characters know each other, Free Fire plays like a family drama gone horribly wrong. Ord recognizes one of the snipers sent to kill him. He, and others, lob insults when not shooting bullets at the other characters.

“Poke him in the eye and see if he flinches,” Ord says about the is-he-dead? Martin. Vernon says, “Vernon is a rare and mysterious jewel.” Ord tells Frank to save his story for his fucking autobiography. Vernon ties cardboard to his arms to prevent infection as he crawls through dirt.

Setting (2/4)

My favorite action movie trope/cliche demands characters meet and kill in an abandoned warehouse. How about a movie set entirely in and around one?

One dirty, nasty abandoned warehouse constitutes the setting of Free Fire. The characters walk through a long corridor and up a flight of stairs to reach the main floor where most of the killing will take place.

Watching characters walk silently seems unnecessary, but in a movie like Free Fire it is essential. The viewer must know the geography of the space to understand events unfolding.

Early warehouse walkthrough

After the deal goes south the characters take sides. Vernon and his team sequester amongst the unloaded weapons and the red van, while Chris and his crew flee to another side.

Between these shooters is a large expanse of dirt, grit, trash, crumbled concrete walls that serve as cover, and, as one character discovers, a used needle.

Each character is packing a handgun and a bottomless supply of bullets. The weapons force the characters to crawl and slide throughout the warehouse, and the movie succeeds in following their progress. We might ignore the crumbling foundations of a wall, but said ruins can be the difference between life and death to a prone person.

Late-movie action forces characters upstairs, where they find some different, dangerous weapons. The second floor served as an effective way to break up the monotony of the warehouse floor.

Commentary (0/2)

Nothing to see here but a bunch of criminal lowlifes trying to kill each other after a deal deteriorates. Perhaps the lone thing to say is that it’s better to live in a time of cell phones than have to crawl around fighting to the death over the lone phone line within 100 yards.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The criminal underworld of 1978 Boston appears to have one white woman and one black guy. Turns out they were the ones who hired the hit men so they could steal the money. Does that make Free Fire woke, or not? I can’t decide.


  • (1) The sound crew nailed this movie. The camera frames a character doing something while others speak off camera and several yards away. These sounds imprinted the echo chamber that is an abandoned warehouse.

Summary (35/68): 51%

There’s some ironic humor to Free Fire. A weapons deal nose dives and the participants shoot at each other, but not with the weapons being sold. The characters can see the guns, but the ammunition is locked away.

I learned life lessons from the movie: if you are ever caught in a shootout, crawl the hell out of there. Or hide. Don’t run around. Don’t do smack. Don’t escalate arguments when guns are all over the place.