There is a certain hesitation to write about a film that didn’t meet expectations simply based on the fact that it wasn’t exactly what was promised by marketing or word of mouth. It’s tricky to divorce yourself from the hype of a film, especially when it’s generated so well, in order to judge it on its own terms. Yet here we are in a time when the life of cinema hinges so greatly on its marketability. If there is an audience for any film today, it must be because more than half of that audience saw a trailer for it somewhere online or at another film before it.
The ads for “Free Fire” have been floating around for almost a year now (its first trailer premiered in front of the brilliant “Swiss Army Man”), so movie lovers have had quite a while to prepare for the gleeful abandon in its dark humor and shoot-em-up premise that was coated with a Tarantino flavor in the marketing. Tarantino’s influence on the film is clear, but there is surprisingly little else to grasp as director Ben Wheatley stretches its premise out beyond the point of caring for anyone caught in the disorienting shower of bullets.
Set in 1970s Boston, two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), meet up with intermediary Justine (Brie Larson) and representative Ord (Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his associates at an abandoned warehouse. Tensions rise quickly between the two groups as insults and sarcastic quips are fired back and forth relentlessly, and soon the bullets join the party, turning the heated deal into open season for everyone caught in the crossfire.
“Free Fire” runs for a solid 90 minutes, yet it feels longer than it probably should. Aside from the liberal use of gasoline and a truck, Wheatley never seizes the opportunity to escalate the insanity of the action, which grows tiresome far too quickly. Geography, or lack thereof, is the film’s biggest problem. There are glimmers of spacial clarity, but they become lost in the dizzying proceedings far too often. Disorientation seems to be Wheatley’s goal, but it is difficult to navigate the chaos when there is little reason to care for who gets shot and why. Wheatley’s focus on the reaction to getting shot rather than the bloody impact of every shot is welcome though.
Despite the absence of a single character to really latch onto amidst the carnage, the efforts of the cast are stupendous. Everyone here seems to be in acting heaven. There is a clear sense of impromptu camaraderie and boiled vexation between the characters. Hammer, Murphy and Jack Reynor (playing one of Vernon’s associates) are quite good here, shockingly overpowering Larson’s mighty chops. Copley does not get the chance to stand out like he usually does, but it’s still impossible to take your eyes off him. Nevertheless, you know your movie has a problem when not even Sharlto Copley can save it.
Cinephiles will detect Tarantino’s scent within five minutes, though they won’t be able to savor it for long. Wheatley’s film reeks of “Reservoir Dogs,” but it is without the balls-to-the-wall gusto that made its superior pop. This is not to say that Wheatley should’ve copied a little more from Tarantino; he does find a unique voice here, but it is one far too drab and cynical to imbue the film with the gonzo antics that its premise should’ve delivered. That being said, if John Denver weren’t played at all here, I suppose it could’ve been worse.