** out of ****
(for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references, and drug use)
Released: April 21, 2017
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor
I feel like we’re forgetting what good filmmaking is supposed to look like.
The raves for Free Fire coming out of festivals in Toronto and Austin seem short-sighted, as if eager to discover and brand The Next Cool Thing, because this homage to 70s era pulp action cinema is barely an homage – or cinema. Its only virtue is to remind us just how gifted and special a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino is.
Making poor facsimiles of core genre staples isn’t enough when you have no idea what to do with them, and based on what writer/director Ben Wheatley has made here it seems he didn’t even take the time to watch and learn from the great films of his executive producer Martin Scorsese. With little style and faux charisma, Free Fire is an incoherent wannabe free-for-all.
This contained shoot-em-up crime drama is a genre exercise that shows just how out-of-shape its filmmaker is. Free Fire works only as a “wrong” example in a compare-and-contrast with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs for any film professor looking for a good case study.
The simplicity of the idea is intriguing: when a couple of loose cannons can’t hold their tempers, an illegal gun sale goes horribly wrong at an abandoned manufacturing plant. An hour-long shoot-out ensues. It’s a solid basis for a movie that aspires to revel in style and take time to reveal layers, but neither is done here.
The complete lack of cinematic vision by Wheatley is shocking. There are no inspired variations on classic visual motifs or, for that matter, even carbon copies of ones. An overindulgence of close-ups makes for an uninteresting and confusing movie, spliced together by rapid editing that overcompensates for a shooting style that’s barely rudimentary. The aesthetic whole is grubby and slapdash, dying to be storyboarded.
In a movie like this, the location should be another character. Instead, all spatial clarity and atmospheric presence is ignored. This is what happens when you abandon medium and wide shots, and don’t intentionally motivate movement within a more expansive frame.
Due to the overuse of close-ups, a solid comprehension of the physical geography is lost on the viewer, as is the position of each character in relation to the others. This is a major flaw when trying to track a shootout. Understanding location, space, and distance is vital in building tension.
The characters are little more than stock archetypes, moved around like pawns. Most of the performances fail to transcend the caricatured cartoonyness of what’s provided on the page, a problem with the script more than the cast.
Even so, Cillian Murphy does particularly admirable work in taking this thin material seriously, and Sam Riley has the most fun as a lackey who’s a perpetual punching bag. We don’t really get to know any of these tortured souls, though; we just get to see them shout and shoot at each other.
The cast also lacks the battered wear-and-tear of Tarantino and Scorsese ensembles, as well as the existential bitterness. Instead, these characters look more like what they are: actors retrofitted with the right clothes, wigs, and whiskers but without the lived-in world-weary vibe of criminals from the underworld.
The script is all lingo and language but it never goes deeper with its characters or themes, nor does it experiment with linear time or overall form. Lazily, it even has its gun-blazing anti-heroes run out of bullets at inopportune but dramatically convenient times; you can predict when the chambers will be empty.
Worst of all, without any semblance of humanity or backstory, you don’t care who lives or dies, nor do you hold any interest in the eventual outcome.
Free Fire is a plot construct with profane dialogue and loads of gunplay, but never evokes anything that’s particularly memorable. More of a mild bunch than a wild one, this is just a collection of shaky footage frantically cut together that merely documents a flat screenplay. Brandishing an attitude that it doesn’t earn, Free Fire desperately wants to be everything it’s not.