Review: Free Fire
Within the modern generation of directors working in mainly genre fare, there is no one like British director Ben Wheatley. Going between psychological crime dramas (Down Terrace, Kill List) to dark comedies (Sightseers) and even a very British acid western (A Field in England). His latest film (co-authored with regular contributor Amy Jump) Free Fire seeks to be his most mainstream to date. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the film is set in real-time, over the course of an evening in 1978 as an arms deal at an abandoned Boston warehouse goes south, forcing those on each side to take cover and hopefully survive to the end.
First and foremost, Free Fire is a film where the acting comes front and centre, and it's a major plus that the ensemble here is quite entertaining. Sharlto Copley (District 9) has another wildcard performance as Vernon, the gunrunner with exuberant flair; Brie Larson (Room) is very commanding as the sole female character Justine manages to be among the most deadly, Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) gets a lot of the funniest lines as Ord the organizer between the two parties, and Cillian Murphy (Sunshine), the closest thing to an audience surrogate, gets a good share of laughs as well as Chris.
Unfortunately we don't get a whole lot of information about these people, and even if they are entertaining to watch, their trigger-happy, vengeful, and in some cases detestable qualities make us wonder why should we even care about whether they live or die. Once all the characters are introduced and we're given a heaping amount of expository information regarding the present situation, an argument between two members on opposing sides ignites the gunfire, and for the remaining eighty or so minutes, the film settles into becoming an extended sequence with a barrage of bullets and quips. This component is the crux of the film, and unfortunately it runs out of steam by the midway point. Where one would imagine the sense of tension would rise as the story plays out, instead it deflates into near-nothingness by the finale. Thankfully the film is not very long, but it's a disappointment that the film doesn't evolve anywhere beyond that.
Maybe the biggest problem with Free Fire is that the composition and editing makes it difficult to get a sense of the warehouse area where it largely takes place. At certain points its difficult to understand where each character is located and where their gun is being aimed at and their motivations for shooting at others. It becomes a geographic mess, and any attempts to mentally plot out distance and spatial organization are thwarted by the rapid, blaring gunfire which punctuates every other moment. Wheatley's more inspired moments are too far and few inbetween, and aren't strong enough to elevate the story to the level of excitement desired.
I really really wanted to like Free Fire, after Wheatley's last film High-Rise it seemed like the director was primed to go into more interesting directions, and this type of minimalist story seemed like a perfect concept to undertake. It's a case of an idea sounding better on paper than it does on the screen, (imagine Reservoir Dogs but with more action and less coherence), and I'm sure that it will appeal greatly to younger moviegoers who are only there for the guns and the gags. But for those who feel the film's premise seems a little bit familiar or redundant, expect to be disappointed.