I really admire filmmaker Ben Wheatley because he’s able to just “go there” with his art. He wholeheartedly commits to whatever genre he’s exploring. His voice is strong. It’s just that occasionally his “there” isn’t exactly a place I ever imagined traveling to. DOWN TERRACE is like a Coen brothers movie crossbred with a Ken Loach film. KILL LIST blindsided me with its delightfully spooky and bonkers third act twist, solidifying the auteur as “one to watch.” The dark comedy surprise SIGHTSEERERS is like if a murderous workaday Sid and Nancy went on a road trip in a camper van fueled by pitch black ethanol. Even though I despised A FIELD IN ENGLAND (pretentious) and HIGH RISE (it’s a METAPHOR!), I still appreciate his willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of good taste. FREE FIRE doubles down on the traditional shoot ‘em up picture by mixing in character-driven shenanigans and tomfoolery. That said, it sporadically shoots a few blanks. It’s massively fun, but not quite the rip-roarin’ stomper it could’ve been.
It’s 1978 and a hellfire of bullets and blood is about to rain down inside an abandoned warehouse near Boston’s commercial seaport. Two rival gangs have brokered an arms deal: a gaggle of guns in exchange for a briefcase full of cash. Frank (played by Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), Chris (Cillian Murphy) Justine (Brie Larson), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), and Stevo (Sam Riley) are hoping to procure a bunch of M-16’s from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). And with slick Ord (played by a majestically bearded Armie Hammer) helping to facilitate the order, everything should be just peachy. It goes pear-shaped. What should be an average, amicable deal quickly escalates into a brawling, sprawling shootout between a fairly indelible cast of characters. Plus, there’s a double-cross thrown in for good measure, because of course there would be.
Wheatley, who wrote the film with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, knows that the wit and zingers lie in the banter amongst the ensemble. While character motivations are simple, bordering on simplistic, there’s a certain level of joy seeing the antagonistic relationship between Ord and Frank unfold from scene to scene. The bullets fly, but their barbs puncture and wound. Hubris and chutzpah are these characters’ weapons of choice. For all their bluster, these fellas are bumbling, novice shooters. Same goes for the beef between Sam and Harry. Your loyalty to which you’d rather see “get it” may oscillate as the reels unspool. Justine and Chris’ brief flirtation is intriguing, though never really carried through to its fullest potential. Though a handful of these characters’ demises don’t build to a piercing crescendo, the ones that do feel satisfying, evoking laughter at the absurdity.
Sound design also plays a key factor as all the guns popping and bullets ricocheting add ambiance, atmosphere and basically do the talking for the characters when dialogue fails them. They’re regressing, returning the most basic of machismo-fueled tendencies. Emma Fryer’s costume design is not only practical for the actors, most of whom are relegated to crawling around in the dirt for a large portion of the run time, but also speaks volumes in terms of character enhancement. Soundtrack cues are handled much better than mainstream Hollywood features. John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” has never been utilized better. It also is the better of the two features this year to have Larson embarking on a journey set to CCR’s “Run Through The Jungle.” You can’t convince me this isn’t her own personal theme song in real life. This also marks a mini-MALEFICENT reunion of Riley and Copley – one where they actually get to act against each other in the flesh.
Nevertheless, I wonder what the point of all this is. Is this Wheatley’s treatise on America’s love of mindless entertainment that glorifies guns and violence? Maybe. If so, what’s he trying to say about it? Give the audience what they want? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? Possibly. Or is this just supposed to be a simple, all-audience accessible film (sorta like his cinematic iteration of Bruce Springsteen begrudgingly penning “Dancin’ in the Dark”)? Perhaps his explanation is much more unassuming than any of my assumptions. Though he never satirizes or mocks the genre, he does embrace it – even if it’s only in a casual, but jovial hug.
3.5 out of 5
FREE FIRE opens on April 21.