‘Free Fire’ Review: An Audacious, Monotonous, Feature-Length Shootout
I’ve already heard one colleague refer to Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, in which an arms deal gone wrong escalates into an almost 90-minute-long shootout, as a kind of cinematic high-wire act. But high-wire acts don’t last 90 minutes; watching somebody balance on a wire for 90 minutes would get pretty boring if that’s all they did. There’s an audaciousness to Free Fire that’s self-defeating. Yes, Wheatley pulled off a feature-length gun battle. But the result is so monotonous that I ran out of patience long before the participants ran out of ammo.
After a brief prologue, the entire film is set inside an abandoned warehouse. It’s the 1970s, which you know because everyone onscreen has big hair or a wacky mustache or an outrageous leisure suit — or in the case of Sharlto Copley, all three. He plays Vernon, an eccentric arms dealer selling a cache of weapons to a group that includes Justine (Brie Larson) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), an Irishman looking to ferry guns to the IRA. Armie Hammer plays Ord, a hirsute broker who arranges the meeting between Chris and Vernon; Michael Smiley plays Frank, an associate of Chris and Justine. And then there’s Stevo (Sam Riley) and Harry (Jack Reynor), hired muscle for their respective sides who, unbeknownst to their employers, have a history together. When they see each other, tensions mount and then bullets start to fly.
They don’t stop until the movie is over, after hundreds of rounds of ammunition have been expended and the characters have received so many shots to the arms and legs and various other non-essential body parts (plus a few essential ones too) that their superhuman endurance becomes comical. Wheatley punctuates the violence with reaction shots and sarcastic one-liners from the characters; no one seems particularly perturbed that they’re slowly dying over absolutely nothing. It’s almost like a really bloody Looney Tunes — but, again, any given Looney Tunes short is less than 10 minutes long. If you’ve ever wanted a Road Runner episode where Wile E. Coyote falls of the same cliff 85 times, Free Fire is the film for you.
The action choreography and camerawork is occasionally inspired, but mostly just chaotic; it’s never quite clear who is where in this warehouse, and where their various objectives (cases of money, boxes full of rifles) are in relation to one another. Perhaps this is by design. Free Fire’s insane excesses of ordinance suggest a reading of the film as an allegory for the insanity of modern gun culture: Once these guys start shooting, they’re too stupid to stop until everyone is dead. But the movie gets that point across after 45 minutes and then proceeds for another 45 anyway.
There are some decent laughs (a surprising number delivered by Copley, giving his best performance since District 9), but a movie this repetitive and single-minded doesn’t have room to utilize a cast this good. Most of the actors are totally wasted; Brie Larson, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Actress, barely gets a character to play and spends large chunks of Free Fire forgotten on the sidelines. Copley almost always has the worst fake accent in any movie he’s in (the characters even make fun of his weird voice this time!), but he’s given a run for his money in that department by Riley and Noah Taylor, both mangling their dialogue (which is already hard to hear over all the gunfire) with excruciating gangster inflections.
Wheatley loves to push twisted premises further and further into the surreal, until the characters’ violent behavior becomes so extreme and grotesque it flips from horror to comedy. (See: Sightseers, High-Rise.) Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but I tend to like his films better when they stick to the darkness; I vastly prefer his more serious movies (like Kill List) to his more cartoonish ones. That definitely applies to Free Fire. There’s a decent amount of craft on display, along with a filmmaker of genuine chutzpah. Throw just a little restraint into the mix, and you might really have something.