Free Fire; Film Songs
THE BRITISH filmmaker Ben Wheatley has made his those-who-can’t views on critics well known in interviews, so far be it from him to openly court us in his work. Yet there are moments when Free Fire, his sixth feature film, feels like it’s been made with certain banally exuberant poster quotes specifically in mind. Wheatley’s banging, clattering heist thriller invites critics to write lines like: “Comes in with all guns blazing!”—and many have duly obliged.
Except when it comes to Free Fire, that’s not so much a hackneyed endorsement as a neutral statement of fact: The gunfire begins all but immediately, and on the slimmest of pretexts. Twenty minutes in, when enough bullets had been sprayed and expletives spewed to fill an average Tarantino movie, my date turned to me and said, with a faint note of desperation, “Oh God, it’s just this for another hour, isn’t it?” He was 10 minutes short of the mark, but otherwise: Yep.
For a director whose outings in the past four years have included a black comedy about serial-killer tourists in the English Midlands ( Sightseers) to a dizzy J.G. Ballard dystopia ( High-rise) to whatever acid-nightmare fuel A Field in England was, Free Fire is his most commercial film to date: a short, simple, retro-leaning thriller, low on thought and high on action, speckled with sexy names looking tremendous in ’70s polyester-chic. All of those things it may be, yet somehow it adds up to one of Wheatley’s more subversive gambles: an adolescent boy’s idea of optimum cinema, with all the boring bits— characters, relationships, emotional motivation—taken out, and only the good stuff left. Guns! Blood! Swearing! Banter! Guns! Blood! More guns!
To be fair, an ordinate amount of guns is to be expected. We’re dealing with arms dealers here, though Wheatley’s dealers don’t do a lot of dealing: Once in use, their product tends to cut negotiations rather short. South African merchant Vernon (Sharlto Copley, using his native Johannesburg accent for a change) is set to sell a large cache of weapons to a motley crew that includes Irish Republican Army middleman Chris (Cillian Murphy), scuzzy associate Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) and enigmatic lone wolf Justine (Brie Larson); dapper broker Ord (a lushly bearded Armie Hammer) is on hand to ensure the handover goes smoothly. Surprise! It does not. Dim-bulb Vernon has brought the wrong gear; dimmer-bulb lackeys on either side of the deal start a personal squabble that fast escalates into an every-manfor-himself ammo-gasm.
That, to answer Peggy Lee’s eternal question, truly is all there is, as our attractive ensemble is thinned out in ever-grislier ways. It’s an experiment
in economy, however, that proves counter productive. Rather than making Free Fire the ultimate concentrated sugar-rush of an action movie, excising those pesky boring bits creates its own variety of boredom. The film’s frenetic-from-the-get-go activity—set entirely in and around a single drab Boston warehouse, lining up a set of human bowling pins for the sole purpose of seeing which one stands the longest—swallows any larger, more gradual sense of movement. There’s something impressive in the way Free Fire hits and sustains a single highpitched note from beginning to bloody end, but with so little psychology to disrupt the carnage, it’s an exercise that could achieve its modest aims as easily in 15 minutes as in 90.
So what do we get from taking the longer route? For one thing, a heftier dose of Wheatley’s cinematographic style: Even in those stray seconds when nothing is being fired, the film itself is ablaze in hot, sticky shades of orange, as if the screen were marinated in Aperol. The Portishead instrumentalist Geoff Barrow contributes to a soundtrack as loud and rousing as the color palette. And Wheatley has great taste in casting: Murphy and Larson are the kind of actors you could watch all day, even when they’re given little to do but pose in lusciously lurid flared pantsuits and drooped collars.
But these are shortterm sensory pleasures; you could as happily (if somewhat more quietly) leaf through a Free Fire feature in a magazine for the same rewards. Wheatley and Amy Jump’s script is packed with quippery that isn’t memorable enough to quote and characters whose names you forget the second after the screen turns to black. The slain bodies could fill a getaway truck, but nothing has really happened. This is a movie that may fire freely, but by the end, it’s shooting mostly blanks. — GUY LODGE
LINE OF FIRE: The dealers and wheelers of Free Fire include ( from
far left) Armie Hammer as Ord, Brie Larson as Justine, Cillian Murphy as Chris, Sam Riley as Stevo and Michael Smiley as Frank.