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REVIEW: Free Fire
By Eric Hillis, TheMovieWaffler.com
originally published: 04/26/2017
After delivering one of 2016’s most disappointing releases - his adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise - director Ben Wheatley makes a quick return with an equally ambitious project. But while Free Fire is an improvement on his treatment of Ballard, it’s yet another case of Wheatley biting off more than he can chew.
They say tragedy plus time equals comedy, and so we’re now at a point where IRA gunmen can act as the protagonists of a knockabout British action-farce (it’s impossible to imagine this premise with Islamist terrorists substituted for their Irish equivalents). Set in the late ‘70s, Free Fire sees a pair of IRA men - Cillian Murphy’s Chris and Michael Smiley’s Frank - arrive at a Boston warehouse with the intention of buying an arsenal of machine guns, accompanied by the latter’s unhinged junkie brother in-law Stevo (Sam Riley) and his laid back pal Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The seller is South African douchebag Vernon (Sharlto Copley), flanked by his former Black Panther sidekick Martin (Babou Ceesay) and a pair of heavies in Jack Reynor’s Harry and Noah Taylor’s Gordon. Acting as go-betweens are Armie Hammer’s suave negotiator Ord and Brie Larson’s Justine, the sole female caught in a dick-swinging contest.
Free Fire is strongest in its early scenes as Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump lay out their side-burn sporting chess pieces on the board. The Boston accents are about as authentic as the Irish brogues of Live by Night, with Americans played unconvincingly by British, Irish and Australian actors. Ironically, it’s Ceesay, saddled with the film’s most cartoonish role, who comes across as the most authentic; don’t ask me why, but black British actors seem to adapt to American accents with greater ease than their white counterparts. This creates the feeling that you’re watching a play, but it actually plays as a strength. Wheatley has assembled a cracking ensemble, and they’re clearly having a lot of fun in these early scenes, trading macho insults like David Mamet’s real estate sharks of Glengarry Glen Ross.
It’s when the movie explodes into an extended action sequence that Wheatley begins to struggle with his own material. In his first time attempting large scale action, Wheatley is found to be out of his depth here, much to his film’s detriment. This is chiefly down to his struggles with conveying the geography of his location and the spatial relations between his many characters. After an initial skirmish, the players retreat to various spots around the warehouse, but with Wheatley shooting mainly in close-up and medium shots, we have no idea where the characters are in relation to each other, and it all quickly becomes confusing. When the characters first enter the warehouse, Wheatley follows them in a Reservoir Dogs style tracking shot when his camera should be roaming the environment, hardwiring its nooks and crannies into our brains (think of how Fede Alvarez establishes his similarly limited location in Don’t Breathe).
When 90% of your movie consists of one long single location set-piece, you really need an innovative approach to prevent it becoming repetitive, but Wheatley and Jump fail to conceive of any interesting developments or twists. They also lose track of some of their characters, focussing chiefly on those played by Murphy, Copley and Hammer, while neglecting the others to a degree that often causes surprise whenever they make a re-appearance. Larson’s Justine is introduced in a manner that suggests she’s set to play a pivotal role, but she’s really only there to facilitate some sexist ‘70s humor.
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For a movie in which every character is shot multiple times, and given its comic tone, the violence of Free Fire is all too restrained. Save for a gory moment involving a van, the sort of ‘splatstick’ you might expect from such a scenario is notably absent. All the laughs come from the dialogue (mostly from Smiley and Copley, who finally gets material that suits his one-dimensional ‘Saffer’ schtick), when we should be laughing at the action also. Wheatley and Jump have done a fine job of putting witty one-liners in the mouths of their characters, but when it comes to putting guns in their hands, I wish they had sold their script to a director more comfortable with visceral action.