MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Free Fire’ is a misfire

With a lack of thematic depth and a cluttered eye for action, Ben Wheatley's minimalist gunfire showdown fires blanks

| April 24, 2017

There was a lot of hype surrounding “Free Fire” in the months leading up to its release. Not only was it one of the first publicized roles for Brie Larson after her incredibly unanimous Academy Award win for “Room,” but it also showcases filmmaker Ben Wheatley to a much larger audience than before. Wheatley’s other major films, “Kill List” and “High Rise” were polarizing, yet poignant pieces about death and class, and were respectively released by IFC Midnight and Magnet Releasing, limiting its audience to only a few. While Wheatley’s style is often times polarizing and off-putting, there’s something pretty magnetic and frenetic about his style of filmmaking that I admire, if it’s still something I don’t immediately gravitate to. “Free Fire” caught my eye from the numerous number of major films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as its credentials pretty much refused to be ignored. From its director, to its cast, to its setting and premise, to its producers and distribution through A24, “Free Fire” had guts and major chutzpah.

Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are Irish revolutionary in looking to buy guns for their cause in mid-1970s Boston from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates Ord (Armie Hammer), Martin (Babou Caesay), Harry (Jack Reynor), Gordon (Noah Taylor) and intermediary Justine (Brie Larson. Together with their team of Steve-O (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Clienti), they negotiate a deal in a warehouse with the arms dealers, but when an order error mixed with personal beef causes the deal to go south, the two teams battle it out in a prolonged, brutal gunfight.

At a lean runtime of 91 minutes, “Free Fire” doesn’t waste any time getting to the point, setting us up immediately with the scenario at hand. While 91 minutes isn’t an insane amount of time to build deep characterizations, it certainly isn’t impossible, yet the major problem in “Free Fire” is that with so many different characters, Wheatley, along with co-writer Amy Jump, try to give each character a similar amount of development time to seemingly keep the kill order unpredictable, but in the process diminishes the depth of the characters we actually are supposed to connect with. Without this depth, “Free Fire” and its unpredictability soon gives way to a film that you simply don’t care about, which invalidates any work to keep the film fresh and exciting. And even then, the way the film plays out still maintains exactly what you would expect it to.

With the screenplay of “Free Fire,” you have a film that is confident in itself without being cocky, which is a major plus, but the tones of the film are often inconsistent to the point of me wondering where they intend to go with each passing scene. While “Free Fire” wasn’t particularly funny, there were some humorous jabs throughout the film, but they never occurred enough to make it seem like that was the intention. In fact, I couldn’t tell if “Free Fire” was trying to be funny and failing at it, or if it wasn’t even trying to be funny at all, which I’m not quite sure is worse. “Free Fire” also doesn’t make much use of any ingenuity when it comes to action filmmaking, which somewhat defeats the purpose of the film. Without any witty payoff, the film relies quite heavily on its action and violence to impress the audience, yet the film still somehow, albeit for a few moments, simply plays out the entire film as a simple gun battle lacking much creativity or ingenuity to set it apart.

The performances are what save “Free Fire” for the most part. While the characters in the film aren’t deep or particularly likable, the actors behind the characters do quite well, especially Larson, Murphy and Copley, who give a relatively amusing amount of life to these 2D caricatures. The supporting cast also is an affable group of actors, with performances from Reynor and Riley that make for some entertaining banter to preview what the film could’ve been.

While “Free Fire” uses a lot of diegetic music of the time period in the film, its score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is worthy of some praise as well. The film combines much of the discernible elements from films like “Interstellar” and “Ex Machina” that make for a more modern sound than one might expect in a period piece such as “Free Fire.” The biggest shame in this is that this original score just isn’t utilized very much, reserving itself for brief moments at the start and end of the film, virtually disappearing for a good chunk of the film.

In films such as “Free Fire,” where the characters are given a single space to work the entire feature in, it’s imperative that the sense of space that these characters are occupying is simple and concise, which “Free Fire” doesn’t do very well. The film as a whole is a visual letdown, with its lack of action ingenuity, dim lighting and its convoluted space, “Free Fire” is a relatively difficult movie to keep up with, often with moments where the audience is left wondering where each character is in the grand scheme of things, rather than simply behind another barricade that looks exactly like the previous barricade they were at, then you just start second guessing whether or not the characters even moved, then you don’t even know who they’re shooting at anymore, which just leaves me as a viewer confused and exhausted trying to keep up with something that should be simple.

“Free Fire” wasn’t a film I was particularly stoked for, but from its festival hype, directorial status and the stamp of approval from A24 (in a wide release, no less), I figured that it could at least be some mid-spring fun to prep us for the upcoming blockbuster film season. Unfortunately, despite having all the elements there, “Free Fire” misses the target pretty egregiously. While the performances in the film are fine and the score is nice, said score is vastly underused, the action that pervades the entire film is contrived and unoriginal, the singular space of the film feels more like a maze than a warehouse, the cinematography doesn’t give much clarity to the situation, the writing is inconsistent and lacking, and the film just gets too repetitive too quickly. It’s possible to make a film in a single setting work, but overloading it with 2D characters and convoluted action makes the task of still breaking through that barrier impossible.

2/5

Photo courtesy of A24

Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, also starring Babou Caesay, Enzo Clienti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, with Patrick Bergin, Tom Davis, Mark Monero.
Runtime: 91 minutes
Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.
Now playing in select Charlotte-area theaters.

An A24 release, Film4 and BFI present, a Rook Films production, “Free Fire”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a junior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a junior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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