Directed by Ben Wheatley
Apr 19, 2017
Likely envisioned by its creators as an instant cult hit, Free Fire has all the makings of a midnight movie classic. Its gimmicky, hyper-violent premise, cheap single location setting and kooky characters make it seem like a lost b-movie from the '70s grindhouse era. The filmmakers aren’t shying away from the last point either, setting the movie in 1978, as the outfits and music cues refuse to let you forget. For all its promise, Free Fire never quite adds up to the sum of its many parts.
Set in more-or-less real time in a Boston warehouse, Free Fire is a tale as old as time: a criminal deal gone wrong due to the stupidity of its various participants. On one side, you’ve got Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley as two IRA members who have come to the states to buy a large order of machine guns. On the other you have Sharlto Copley as a chipper nutcase of a gun dealer and Armie Hammer as his yuppie advisor. Brokering the deal is Brie Larson as… the token girl, I guess? Her role is never really made clear. Things come to a head when the pair of nitwits Copley has hired for muscle and the pair of nitwits that the IRA guys hired as muscle realize that they know and hate each other. Threats are exchanged, guns are drawn and soon everyone is trapped in the warehouse with bullets flying.
Fun idea, right? And how about that cast? Free Fire is the newest film from British writer/director Ben Wheatley, the mind behind Kill List, Sightseers and High Rise, all of which marry disturbing plots to bizarre aesthetics and extremely dark comedy. Free Fire drops the first two aspects and doubles down on the comedy, with every one of the numerous bloody injuries inflicted in the film being treated as a punchline. Sharlto Copley’s Vernon is positioned as the comedic lead, but his motor-mouth blowhard schtick quickly wears thin. The stealth MVP of the film is Armie Hammer as Ord, the slick, pot-smoking fixer with an easy-going contempt for everyone around him. Wheatley also gets a lot of mileage out of the sound design, not only via gunshots and pinging ricochets – this movie is deafening if nothing else – but also through the various overlapping threats, complaints and insults being fired off alongside the bullets.
Where the film really misfires is in its action and thriller elements. Sure, the gunfire is plentiful, but for a film with less than a dozen characters set in one location, Wheatley does a very poor job of establishing coherent geography, which becomes critical once you’ve got everyone hiding behind similar looking piles of rubble and crates and firing in all directions. And despite playing itself mostly for comedy, the film also wants us to be invested in who makes it out alive, which is difficult when everyone is either an idiot or a good-looking actor with nothing to work with beyond a hairstyle and a retro outfit. As in Kong: Skull Island, Brie Larson feels especially wasted, and it’s telling that these were the last two films she shot before she became Academy Award Winner™ Brie Larson. If she goes on to be the Meryl Streep of her generation, Free Fire will probably have an added element of weirdness in the decades to come. It’s doubtful she’ll be starring in anything this loud, dumb and goofy any time soon.
Author rating: 5/10
Average reader rating: 8/10
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