Two criminal organizations meet in an abandoned factory for a weapons transaction. Tense from the beginning because of the bosses’ planet-sized egos, things get worse when mooks on both sides recognize each other from a bar fight and one of them opens fire, triggering an increasingly chaotic shootout that might well kill every last one of them.
We seem to be entering the golden age of the low-concept genre film: acclaimed filmmakers taking the bloated 140-minute blockbusters of today and draining all the pretense out of them, making them as bare bones as possible and refusing to dress them up so they feel less like guilty pleasures. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road, the movie that’s basically a two-hour car chase; Green Room, ninety minutes of blunt tension and claustrophobic violence; you could even argue that Dunkirk, a prestige pic in just about every sense of the word, is just a two-hour war movie battle sequence. Now Free Fire: Ben Wheatley, who vacillates between arthouse fare and genre excess and often combines them, goes all out with a movie that’s a ninety-minute gun fight, playing out in close to real time.
It gets close. Very, very close. Unfortunately, unlike its aforementioned contemporaries, Free Fire’s flaws prove fatal. They’re too critical for its strengths to undo them.
And its strengths are considerable. One look at the names tells you just about everything you need to know about the cast. Brie Larson makes for an admirably condescending “only sane woman” in a room full of exceptionally stupid men who are all armed to the teeth. Armie Hammer is fun as a character who thinks of himself as the only sane man but slowly gives less and less of a damn as things get more complicated and annoying. Cillian Murphy is solid as the criminal who may have some fragment of a soul left in him and the closest thing the movie has to a protagonist. Jack Reynor continues to prove that he’s much better than the Transformers movie that first put him on my radar, getting a lot of laughs as a complete dick who manages to be petty even in the middle of a shootout — and also has an overwhelming tendency to keep shooting the wrong people. Based on a quick perusal of reviews, people even seem to like Sharlto Copley in this — I’ve always kind of been in the guy’s corner (his lackluster post-District 9 career has more to do with bad movies than bad performances, in my opinion), but he’s truly back in form here, playing the leader of the gang selling the weapons as an insufferable rich kid, in charge only because he has deep pockets, and constantly trying to show off and prove that he’s totally tough and scary.
The movie is good at expressing those characters through its action and even giving a handful of them functional, albeit slight, narrative arcs. It also maintains an effective gallows humor that keeps the proceedings light and firmly within the realm of genre despite the darkness and occasional brutality of the story.
The fact of the matter, though, is that the movie is primarily spectacle — blunt, stripped-down action sequences. That’s its main purpose and therefore the thing it absolutely must get right, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
It does not.
Yes, the script is functional, but that functionality is aimed at genre thrills. The story, characters, and performances are cogs in the action-packed machine, playing a part in the final product but not serving as the final product itself. Mad Max: Fury Road was well written, but no one would have liked it if it had been poorly shot and staged.
In short, Free Fire is an action movie that gets the action wrong, and that’s kind of a big problem. It’s also a closed room thriller that has no sense of geography, which is an even bigger problem. The second gunfire breaks out, the movie becomes an incomprehensible mess. Characters dive for cover and settle into different places, and the movie gives you no sense of where everyone is in relation to one another. By the time you start to figure it out, everyone moves and you’re back to square one. I rarely had so much as the first clue who was shooting at whom, where they were, who was most at risk as a result of a given character’s latest strategy, who was safest, who was most pinned down, whether the various sides were more or less lined up together or if these were individual gunfights taking place between characters spread here, there, and everywhere. Characters disappear for substantial portions of the film, only to show up in another room completely out of nowhere.
Also, in a movie like this, deaths are to be expected, and so are wounds, both serious and otherwise. However, Free Fire takes that entirely too far. I don’t think there’s a single character in the cast who has not been shot by the end of the movie. I’m not even sure whether there’s a surviving character who has been shot any less than two times. Everyone is completely riddled with bullets by the time the movie ends. People get shot in the arms and legs so often that you can’t help but wonder how everyone’s aim is so specifically off-target. Past a certain point, I completely lost track of how injured everyone was, and whether their lives were in any danger because of it. I mean, people get shot in the head and chest and are still kicking an hour later, some of them seeming like they’re barely even in pain. The movie plays this with knowing humor that mitigates the effects somewhat, but it’s still very difficult to take the violence seriously when every fatal shot feels like the movie giving up.
I still came close to enjoying it — it’s funny enough, and the cast is great. But it’s difficult enough to make a largely plotless action movie work — much more so when the action isn’t at all watchable. Free Fire is almost fun, but like the millions of bullets that only find arms and legs before it’s over, it never seems able to actually hit its target. (The original ending joke: Free Fire? More like misfire! You’re welcome.)