Free Fire (2016) / Action-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Enzo Cilenti, Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Review published April 22, 2017
The premise of Free Fire is high concept, so much so that some people will immediately like the film just for that concept alone, regardless of whether it actually makes for a compelling way to tell a story. The setting is 1978, in an abandoned factory warehouse in Boston. Eight people meet in order to make an arms deal that would see guns going to the IRA, and money going those that supply them. As far as what you learn about these people, including a few more that join the party later, beyond why they are there, there isn't a great deal, so when the last two thirds of Free Fire erupts into one gloriously prolonged shootout, there isn't a great reason to care.
Free Fire feels more like an exercise in style and technique than it does a story worth investing one's time to follow. While there's a good cast of character actors who imbue enough personality into scant roles to seem like they might be worth following with more emphasis on characterizations, director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, seems more interested on seeing if he can make a film that has more comic bantering, double-dealings and crazy turns than the film most people will compare it to, Quentin Tarantino's first opus, Reservoir Dogs, as well as the plot structure of his most recent, The Hateful 8.
Not that the film is a total wash. In addition to the aforementioned solid cast, there's a nice retro 1970s look and vibe to the film that makes it feel somewhat fresh, at least in terms of the wardrobe, hair, makeup, and music selection (John Denver blares from a van's eight-track stereo, its peaceful sounds contrasting with the nasty violence surrounding it). The editing is also quite good, though, if the film is actually meticulous about the placement of its many characters within that warehouse, I couldn't keep track of basic geography as it bounces back and forth between several locations as the melee wears on. Nevertheless, the 1970s aesthetic appeal is strong, as you might expect from a film with Martin Scorsese, the king of edgy 1970s two-bit hood films, serving as executive producer.
All of the tools are here for quite a gripping thrill-ride, so why does it come off as so tedious most of the time? Because, at no point, do we care for any of the characters or their points of view, relegating the film to merely watching those characters aim, shoot and limp around or drag themselves across the dirty warehouse grounds after suffering a variety of painful-looking injuries, all the while lobbing a variety of threats and barbs at one another. The only question you'll have by the end is whether any of them will be alive to see the outside of the warehouse again, or, if according to the way these kinds of movies go, they'll all end up as dead meat amid the rubble. If you cared about any of them, even a single one of them, the answer to this might matter, but as characters bite the bullet, there's no emotional, intellectual or or even dramatic tension in the payoff whatsoever.
Fans of Ben Wheatley, who continues to try to merge disturbing and violent content with satire and darkly comic tones, will likely continue to see more of what they've admired through movies like Kill List, A Field in England, and High-Rise (one gathers, after that last one had been so complicated to make, that Wheatley dove head first into something that would be as simple as can be). However, most looking for a bit more meat on the bones will find little within Free Fire to gnaw on except for a rough sketch of an idea for a movie that feels fresher as an idea that it does in execution. As it stands, it's as handsomely presented as Wheatley's other efforts, enough to think he could be a much more efficient and suspenseful director if he could stumble upon a screenplay that merits his skills, namely one that's not his own.
©2017 Vince Leo