by Philip Price
"Everyone's from somewhere," says gun runner Vernon shortly after his introduction in director Ben Wheatley's “Free Fire.” Vernon, as played by Sharlto Copley, is observing the plethora of people who have ascended upon an abandoned warehouse in Boston in 1978 to buy some of his guns. These people come from all over; some from Ireland, others from America, and further there are those of different ethnicities to be considered. This melting pot of participants bring history, prejudice, and a laundry list of assumptions about one another to the table. These preconceptions inform the tone of where each individual might register in the likelihood of who they're going to snap at and could potentially inform us of how this particular scenario was going to play out even before it did, but instead such quirks are only relied on for humor. Each of these men, these proud, overcompensating men tell us the clichés of their ancestry and fire insults back and forth with one another that same heritage being the punchline of most of them. Given the odd amount of time devoted to jokes and jabs about it, we assume there might be a point to it all in that they come to see past the error of such ways and that despite what someone might have heard or been told about a culture that it doesn't necessarily apply to all or that, at the very least, the stereotype might be something of an embellished truth. But no, Wheatley along with co-writer and frequent collaborator Amy Jump have no time for depth, leaving such ideas on the table and only using those clichés and stereotypes for the comedic purposes. That isn't to say that a film can't have fun and be good while having no substance whatsoever, but it is saying that if this is the route your movie chooses to go it better be damn good at accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish and “Free Fire” just isn't. The idea is there, that is clear. The ambition is admirable, no doubt. Still, “Free Fire” never seems able to reach the heights of what Wheatley or Jump likely had in their heads when they were writing and storyboarding the project. Having only seen Wheatley’s “High-Rise” prior to this and not being a fan of that film there might be an inherent hesitance toward the director's work, but there seems an obvious disconnect between the idea that spawned such a movie and the execution that has delivered the disappointing final product we see play out on screen.
In “Free Fire” we first meet Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilente) as they drive a battered and beat-up RV to the scene in which everything will inevitably take place. Stevo and Bernie are made to clearly present the type of junkie losers who will do anything for a quick buck to score some more smack despite the fact they have families at home that could likely use the income. They are working for Frank (Michael Smiley) who is Stevo's brother-in-law who is clearly trying to help his sister out by giving Stevo some incentive to work. Frank is the right-hand man to Chris (Cillian Murphy) a man whose motives are shrouded in mystery, but is for one reason or another purchasing what are supposed to be M-16's from Copley's Vernon. Serving as the facilitators for the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Justine has worked closely with Chris in setting everything up and making sure all goes according to plan leading to a development of affection from Chris that is coincidentally met with some suspicion. On Vernon's side of things is his right-hand man Martin (Babou Creesay) as well as drivers Gordon (Noah Taylor) and Harry (Jack Reynor). Save for a minor hiccup when Vernon delivers the wrong type rifle the deal appears to be going smoothly. That is, until Gordon and Harry drive the truck in to begin unloading the product and Harry comes face to face with Stevo, the same man he beat up in a bar the night before for insulting his sister. The provocation that plays out is intense and erratic culminating in a filmmaking decision that takes such heights to a rather restrained and measured climax that works in terms of the effectiveness in conveying how this is the turning point for the remainder of the film. This is a moment, the moment that will change the course of everyone involved here's future and Wheatley makes sure we realize that. It's simply too bad the filmmaker couldn't continue this type of creativity through intuition throughout the centerpiece action bonanza that is the remainder of his movie.
There isn't a single overhead shot in “Free Fire”; a movie in which a shoot-out takes place in an abandoned warehouse and features upwards of ten people firing at one another. Throughout much of the picture Wheatley keeps his camera at ground level, swirling around on its track to give off the effect of looking cool without really providing the audience with anything visually stimulating. This is the issue I take with Wheatley's approach to his art-the fact he has all the tools and talented actors he could hope for to pull off the fun and inventive concept he's conceived and yet when it comes time to shoot the thing he does so in a standard, conventional fashion that shows little to no sign as to why this guy specifically was given the chair behind the monitors. The point being, if you're going to give yourself a scenario in which your film takes place in a single location where most of the film consists of people shooting at one another it is going to require a certain flair, a certain amount of innovation, a definitive style if you will, to not only make the concept work, but to make the film something worth investing in. Herein lies the issue with “Free Fire” overall though: it's sporadically entertaining, but we don't care about any of the characters even if we do find a handful of them appealing. We have no vested interest in their survival and oddly enough none of them seem to either.
Vernon, who we're told was misdiagnosed as a child genius and never fully recovered, is quickly labeled as an international asshole. While such an assertion may ultimately be correct it is Copley's Vern that proves to be the most entertaining aspect of this otherwise inconsequential trifle. Hammer and Smiley are also good with their characters trading quips and keeping up with one another. There is something of a running joke about Hammer's Ord never looking disheveled that works because Hammer pulls off the snooty, pedigreed air with ease. Murphy more or less gets the role of the straight man whereas Reynor may as well share the same sense of humor as a handful of the other participants in the room, but whose performance and justification make him stand out among the tattered and torn ensemble that begin to blend together the further along the movie goes. Seriously, there are certain shots and/or moments where I had no idea who was firing at one another and much of the time had no idea where one person or set of people were in relation to the rest of the characters. It's a rather poorly constructed action sequence which wouldn't be that big of an issue were it a small sequence in a bigger picture, but given it's the foundation of the film-that's not good.
Sounds like it could have been awesome though, right? It likely could have and might have been in the hands of a director who can make the connection between his or her ideas and their execution, but through the mind of Wheatley all we see is one long, extended action scene that provides some laughs, some fun, and a few moments of gnarly violence, but the instant the credits roll all thought of who these people were and what they were trying to accomplish leaves our mind because we don't care (this is especially true of Larson's Justine despite the fact her "girl of the moment" status has propelled her to the front of the marketing campaign). We're entertained in the moment, but we don't care. For those simply looking for a brief escape into the bowels of unhinged violence this may suffice, but it isn't just the lack of depth that makes “Free Fire” disappointing, but more that it can't do what it sets out to do very well.