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Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is moderately fun, but given its premise and idea, it should be a lot more fun. From the looks of it, it appears that the corrupt and cancerous politicians and gangsters in American Hustle decided to quit their day-job and embrace the life and exhilaration of dodging bullets from unknown directions and shooters in a grungy Boston warehouse. It has glimmers of inspiration, including some amusing quips, and fun performances, by Sam Riley and Brie Larson most notably, but it leaves one with the fulfillment of your average fast food meal.
Wheatley (A Field in England, High-Rise) at least acknowledges that its lean and mean concept wasn't meant to sustain anything more than a eighty-four minute film. During this time, he brings us fare we can effectively dub "Quentin Tarantino-light" in the form of prolific violence, conversational wit, and a good amount of energy. In order for Free Fire to work to its potential, it needed to have memorable characters with personality and charisma, some degree of suspense, good dialog, or some combination of the three, and Wheatley unfortunately doesn't give us much more than glimmers of all three.
The film opens with the grimy duo of Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti) driving through industrialized Boston to meet a group of Irish Republican Army derelicts - Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor), Ord (Armie Hammer), and their squirrely boss Vernon (Sharlto Copley) - to strike a deal on some guns and other artillery. The meeting place is a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of Boston, where Stevo and Bernie can easily drive their van in the building to obtain the firearms. Things are going well until Stevo notices that Harry is the man who left him beaten and bloodied the previous night after he sexually assaulted his sister. The two have it and havoc unleashes when Harry takes a shot at Stevo, impaling his shoulder and starting a war between both parties.
Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
21 April 2017
Steve's Grade: C+
Justine (Brie Larson), a woman on Vernon's side, takes cover instantly and tries to act as the silent mediator for both parties as they exchange several rounds of bullets in an OK Corral-style gunfight. During this time, every man is for themselves. Martin tries to remain his collective self, Stevo takes repeated hits of smack in order to numb his wounds, Harry wants nothing else besides Stevo dead, and Vernon can't bear the thought of his cherished blue suit getting any more wear and tear. All this while a suitcase stuffed with thousands of dollars lies between them and their poor attempts at cover.
Free Fire is narratively dichotomous. It begins quietly, a bit heavy on roundabout dialog, and then kicks it up several notches by filling the rest of the film with gunfire; it never finds a happy medium. The bigger offense, however, is Wheatley's lackluster direction, that's too frequently sloppy as it fails to provide the viewer with spatial awareness as to who is getting shot and who is doing the shooting. It's a mess that is saved only by the occasional charisma of the cast. Who would've thought a film's level of quality would rest on the shoulders of actors like Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, and Jack Reynor?
Brie Larson holds her own, as she serves as justification for the only theme I could think to attach to this film. Free Fire seems to be about masculinity and gun violence and how the two intertwine to make nothing but incompetency and impulsiveness, and with that subtext, the film achieves a bit more sophistication than just a run of the mill, pre-summer offering at the multiplex.
Wheatley finds himself hitting his stride in spurts, and once again, I can't stress how much it works in the film's favor for this to be a short and sweet offering.Free Fire makes a compelling case to give second/third-tier actors more of the spotlight in future projects (Sam Riley could very well go on to be the next Dermot Mulroney or Scoot McNairy if given the right opportunities), but it stands as a film that settles for a seven when it should be aiming more towards an eleven in suspense and fun.