THE FILM 3/5
“You want the weapons, or you don’t want the weapons?”
Free Fire is an electrifying action-thriller about an arms deal that goes spectacularly and explosively wrong. Set in 1970s Boston, the film opens with Justine (Larson), a mysterious American businesswoman, and her wise-cracking associate Ord (Hammer) arranging a black-market weapons deal in a deserted warehouse between IRA arms buyer Chris (Murphy) and shifty South African gunrunner Vernon (Copley). What starts as a polite if uneasy exchange soon goes south when tensions escalate and shots are fired, quickly leading to a full-on battle royale where it’s every man (and woman) for themselves.
It’s shocking to see Martin Scorsese’s name listed on Free Fire, even with an Executive Producer’s credit, which is generally a role tantamount to borrowing the use of someone’s name to enhance a project’s profile. But it’s also kind of appropriate, being that Free Fire is a very Tarantino/Reservoir Dogs-inspired flick, which itself was heavily inspired by Scorsese’s own GoodFellas, and before it, Mean Streets. But where all of those films, even Reservoir Dogs, at least had substance and characterization, Free Fire is interested in none of that. After a couple mini-vignettes in which we’re introduced to our characters, all the shit hits all the fans. A chance interaction that went wrong, a rueful sideways glance, and a few poorly chosen words leads an otherwise standard weapons purchase to go very wrong very quickly, leading to a chaotic and violent…free fire.
These types of ensemble films have come and gone before, some earning rightful praise and enduring reputations (Guy Ritchie’s Snatch), and some mostly fading into obscurity (Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces). All forged from the same concept, a large group of recognizable and respected actors are thrown together, given heightened caricatures to bring to life, and pitted against each other in aid of the same goal. Free Fire, too, wants to do this, bringing together highly respected actors known for award-winning work, most notably Room‘s Brie Larson and The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer, and offering them the chance to do something they’d never once done before. (“I’ve never made a movie where I got to feel cool before,” Larson says in the supplements.) And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thespians capable of much more letting down their hair and doing something a bit more low-brow. The problem with this idea is that Larson and Hammer, far more capable of latching onto concepts with substance, both come off as awkward to watch as they must feel in their roles. Save for a few small moments that come off genuine and realistic, even if in the name of sarcastic moments, none of Larson’s dialogue rings true. And Hammer’s performance couldn’t be stiffer — the focus he has on playing this type of character is so powerful that his self-awareness of his being in a film like this is palpable. He can’t even convincingly take part in an ensemble walk, his hands casually in his pockets, without looking wholly unconvincing. “I’M AN ACTOR” he might as well be screaming directly into the camera.
Even if the roles essayed by Larson and Hammer had been played by actors more appropriate for the fit, there would have been no saving the utter lack of substance that Free Fire seems to be proudly showing off. Cillian Murphy’s character might like Larson’s character because he asks her to dinner. Larson’s character kinda knows some of the other guys at the meet, but we’re never told why, and she’s certainly not giving up the ghost. Not helping is that every character in Free Fire is irredeemable. There’s no one to root for — no one more villainous than anyone else. One character shoots another, who shoots another, who shoots another. Profanity is spewed across the factory floor. Blood is spilled. Someone British says something sarcastically British. It really is Reservoir Dog, but without the background, the characterization, the nuance, and the unflinching, hard-edged style…but with all the Sharlto Copley.
Free Fire is an odd choice of a film for Ben Wheatley, who so far has made only esoteric and highly artistic genre films forged in his very stubbornly specific style. The only DNA Free Fire shares with his previous films is its undying dedication to its concept that Wheatley forces upon his audience. There’s no escaping it. This is the film he wanted to make, as he meant to make it, and whether you’re on board with this concept or not, you’ve got no release from it until the credits roll.
THE PICTURE 4/5
Well, the video presentation on hand for Free Fire is excellent, so at least there’s that. Nearly all of Free Fire takes place within the dusty, dingy interior of a decommissioned factory. Color-timed to adhere to that muted ’70s-color aesthetic, the colors don’t pop so much as exist. Clarity is very good, although many scenes are lit way too low — especially the opening pre-weapon exchange meeting — rendering some opportunities for detail and additional clarity kaput.
THE SOUND 4.5/5
The best aspect of Free Fire is its tremendous audio presentation — not so much for the dialogue (which, though pitiful at times, receives top prominence), but for the use of a full and all-encompassing soundscape once the bullets start flying. It’s not just that all the chaotic firework sounds loud and dynamic (even though it does), but that your home theater system brings the experience to life and really plops you own in the middle of the madness. Bullets fire from a gun in one corner and slam into a wall in another, or ricochet off a hunk of metal, or into the knee bone of a hapless man (or woman) across the floor. Characters are constantly shouting from every corner of the factory — either in chides or in pain — and brings the madness of the elongated shootout sequence to life.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 2/5
If you’ve ever wanted to see Ben Wheatley’s face get run over by a van, don’t miss “The Making of Free Fire.”
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Audio Commentary with Co-Writer/Director Ben Wheatley
- “The Making of Free Fire” Featurette
Entertaining? Sure, it is. Never boring? Oddly, it can be, though — even in the midst of the non-stop shooting, whizzing bullets, and splashing blood, Free Fire somehow wears out its welcome before the first bullet is ever fired. To date there hasn’t been a single Wheatley film that I’ve liked — not even his previously cherished High-Rise — so perhaps I’m completely missing what he’s going for in Free Fire. Almost entirely void of his unflinching voice as a filmmaker, it is very by the numbers and lacking magic– just one more title in the long line of ensemble crime films that are desperate to be Tarantino-esque but instead feel like his leftovers. Technically, the Blu-ray presentation is very good, so fans of the film shouldn’t hesitate in picking up this one. Everyone else…don’t hurry.
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