Movie Review: Free Fire can’t get out of its own way

Ben Wheatley’s stylish Free Fire stars Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in an overlong gun battle. Photo courtesy of A24 Ben Wheatley’s stylish Free Fire stars Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in an overlong gun battle. Photo courtesy of A24

Ben Wheatley’s obvious joy of filmmaking is contagious. It’s clear from everything he’s ever made that movement, color (or lack of it, as in A Field in England) and the extremes of human behavior compel him to create unique, kinetic films with an energy that bridges the gap between raw inspiration and technical perfectionism. Even when his work misses the mark, dramatically or emotionally, seeing a story through his eyes is always a worthwhile experience.

Free Fire
R, 85 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Everything that makes Wheatley great to some and intolerable to others is on full display in Free Fire, a gritty shootout flick with a scaled-down story, taking place entirely in one location following a failed weapons sale. In 1970s Massachusetts, two IRA members—Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley)—attempt to buy automatic weapons from eccentric South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Both sides are loosely assembled teams of mercenaries, family and other interested parties of varying levels of intelligence, skill and loyalty. A series of misunderstandings raises the tension of what ought to have been a routine sale, but when two henchmen with a very recent and totally unrelated fight cross paths, the guns emerge and it’s every man for himself.

The biggest strength of Free Fire—as with most of Wheatley’s films—is when dialogue and plot are not the focus, allowing his stylistic indulgences to take over with wild abandon. Several individual moments of Free Fire rank up there with the best set pieces in recent genre films, and the interplay between the actors is often hilarious, surprising or both. As only a few of these people have actual principles and all have different levels of interest in who lives and dies in this exchange, the outcomes are often unpredictable. Drug addict Stevo—one of the henchmen whose antics led to this mess—has been freebasing following the death of his friend and is no longer invested in surviving, so he shoots the loose containers of compressed air. The ensuing explosion levels the playing field, disorienting the experienced criminals, making them as helpless as the loose cannons and junkies. Moments like this are clever subversions of the gangster flick, where the cool and confident always win.

The biggest strength of Free Fire—as with most of Ben Wheatley’s films—is when dialogue and plot are not the focus, allowing his stylistic indulgences to take over with wild abandon.

On its own, an irrelevant plot is not the worst offense, especially in the world of genre. Films are more than live-action SparkNotes, after all, so if the narrative takes a backseat to make room for something spectacular or more artistically significant than people talking, all the better. However, doing this requires a balance; if the plot and characters are intended to be something the audience pays attention to, they need to be invested in the outcome.

This is where Free Fire loses its way, getting stuck in the mud of forgettable dialogue, redundant character-based gags and confusing sequences that look great but always have murky motivation. If you’re wondering why a character is doing something, you’re likely not focused on the artistry or positive aspects. Too often, Free Fire demands you remember a single character’s name in a large cast or tolerate the same kind of joke over and over again because one character is still behind the same cover and has nothing else to do. Brie Larson and Armie Hammer are in Free Fire, but I couldn’t find a way to describe their roles in this review because, although they’re great, what they actually do is simply not memorable, a problem that plagues many fine performances that get lost in the mix.

Wheatley is an exciting talent, and even his misfires are interesting. Unfortunately, despite some inspired moments and the director’s obvious enjoyment of the process of making it, Free Fire strains the patience of anyone except the most devoted Wheatley fans with a repetitive script and a distracting story that needed to be either at the forefront or completely out of the way.


Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Beauty and the Beast, Born in China, The Boss Baby, The Fate of the Furious, Get Out, Gifted, Going in Style, Kong: Skull Island, Logan, The Promise, Power Rangers, Unforgettable

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, The Fate of the Furious, Get Out, Gifted, Going in Style, The Lost City of Z, Your Name, The Zookeeper’s Wife