Film Review – Free Fire
There are a lot of reasons why people choose a life of crime. Some do it out of an act of desperation – as though they feel like they have no way out of where life has placed them. Others might do it as an act of passion – someone snapping after they discover their lover in bed with another person. The reason people break the law could range from any number of things, including just plain old stupidity. Some people do it just because they are idiots, and that’s what director Ben Wheatley attempts to capture in Free Fire (2016).
Written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, Free Fire takes place over the course of a single night in Boston 1978, involving an illegal gun deal gone terribly wrong. The assorted participants range from your usual bottom of the barrel criminals: gangsters, hitmen, junkies, the usual fare. Because this takes place in the seventies, the hair and costumes have that splashy colorful look, although there is an overall grimy aesthetic. As a tense situation turns worse, things get a lot dirtier. And of course, we have a rock and roll soundtrack, although Wheatley does include a John Denver song as a nice ironic twist to all the mayhem.
Who are these people, and how did they all come to this point? Wheatley and Jump don’t give us much background on any of them. The only character development we get act as a means to an end, and that’s with bullets. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are IRA members that have come to Boston to buy a stock of assault rifles from arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) in an abandoned warehouse. Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) both act as intermediaries between the two groups. What should have been a nice and smooth transaction turns messy, as lackeys from both sides (Jack Reynor/Sam Riley) have unresolved issues between each other. Instead of talking it out like grown adults, one threat turns into another, guns are drawn, and suddenly we’re tossed into an extended shootout between both groups that lasts all the way through the second and thirds acts.
To stretch a shoot out for such a long period of time, Wheatley and Jump paint themselves into a corner that is difficult to work out of. Once the initial wave of action hits, the writing and direction have the responsibility to keep the audience engaged. Seeing anybody do anything for long periods can quickly grow stale. And even at a brisk ninety minutes, the plot teeters toward falling off that ledge. As a director, Wheatley allows the charisma of the cast to dictate much of the enjoyment here. Characters get shot numerous times, causing them to lose functionality of certain limbs. Soon enough, we find nearly all of them crawling on the ground, blood and dirt smeared on their faces. This lends to some nice dark comedy. Now a days, it’s not often you find a picture that takes such glee in bloodshed.
Visually, however, Wheatley’s camera comes up short in terms of spacing. Although Laurie Rose’s cinematography is glossy and stylized, she opts to push the camera in for medium and close up shots too often. My assumption for this is to allow the audience to see the actors crawl on the ground on their elbows, dragging their paralyzed bodies along the way. But unfortunately, we don’t get enough establishing shots to understand where everyone is in relation to everyone else. In a story that is completely about a shootout, it’s critical that we’re fully aware of where everybody else is, how far they are from each other, and who is shooting at whom. Much of the gunfight involves the camera focusing on one character shooting into space, and then we cut to another character reacting to the bullet whizzing past their face. These two could either be on opposite ends of the building or ten feet away from each other – we can’t tell because the direction and editing doesn’t give us enough information.
Luckily, the chemistry of the cast makes up for these shortcomings. Sharlto Copley was never an actor who drew my attention with his performances, but he delves fully in as the slimy weasel, Vernon. Copley acts as though he doesn’t have a care in the world how he comes off, and that makes the effect all the better. Armie Hammer takes the suaveness he found in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and translates it here. Ord is arguably the most dangerous with a gun, but Hammer plays him as though he is simply annoyed, as though he exists on a plane much higher than the dregs he finds himself with. And Brie Larson – still riding her Oscar wave – takes center stage as the lone female amongst the group. The romantic suggestions between her character and Cillian Murphy’s falls flat on its face, but Larson makes up for it through her screen presence alone. Sometimes star power is all you need.
Free Fire was an enjoyable – although problematic – romp between characters I would never want to meet. The concept was intriguing, although the payoff wasn’t as rewarding as I hoped it would be. Perhaps it operates best as a way to fill up some extra time on a lazy Saturday afternoon, and nothing more.