“I’m trying to make order out of chaos, trying to find some way of rationalising the horrific things that people do or the way the world is.” – Chuck Palahniuk
Starting with palpable fizzle and concluding with some delightful bangs, Ben Wheatley’s warehouse shootout flick is an unapologetic exercise in pure genre thrills and nothing more. There’s much fun to be had, thanks to kooky characters and plenty of game actors, quips flying as rapidly as the bullets, but the majority of the film feels like the equivalent of firing a whole clip into the air like Nick Frost’s POINT BREAK imitation in HOT FUZZ: it looks cool but none of the shots hit any target, the entire magazine emptied into nothingness. Wheatley has constructed something that wears its influences on its bloodied and torn sleeves, but where Tarantino understood the value of the buildup to a massacre carrying more storytelling weight than the cacophony of gunfire itself in RESERVOIR DOGS, or even the more recent THE HATEFUL EIGHT, here the firearms come out on quick draw, barely allowing us a chance to establish the circumstances or the environment. Thus, the proceedings quickly blend together for much of the run time, muddled and monotonous before finally settling into some gruesome and darkly comedic late game antics that feel welcome if not a little too late.
Building on the simple premise of IRA members purchasing weapons from an arms dealer at an abandoned Boston warehouse in 1978, it doesn’t take long for tempers to flare and verbal insults to quickly provoke violent actions. Prior to everyone losing their shit on everyone else, there’s plenty to enjoy in the period attire, moody lighting, snappy dialogue, a smorgasbord of dialects, and grungy setting. Here’s where it’s most successful, allowing a worthy ensemble the opportunity to be more than the pawns in Wheatley’s symphony of gunfire that they eventually devolve into. Barbs are traded, balls are busted, awkward jokes are made, and we’re given a sense of everyone’s role, where allegiances lie, and where the lines are being drawn. It’s the beginning of something promising that acts as an introduction that could’ve afforded to be maybe twenty-five to fifty percent longer and a tad more nail-biting. The breaking point is reached too early, and we get lost in the scuffle.
The real reason worth weathering the hail of whizzing bullets is the performances, and unsurprisingly so from such a fun lineup. As one of the IRA members trying to acquire M-16s for his cause, Cillian Murphy’s cautious and commanding Chris is the closest thing we have as someone to root for in a room full of pricks eager to just unload on each other. Armie Hammer is having more fun here than ever before as Ord, the towering, self-absorbed, and bemused representative for the dealers, at one point referred to as, “that fucking yeti”. He appears constantly more focused on maintaining his suave appearance or getting high than acquiring the money everybody else is scrambling for, and his frequent attempts to light a joint in the midst of the chaos provides consistent laughs. As his cowardly contractor Vernon, Sharlto Copley is at his most winning since his debut in DISTRICT 9, almost running away with the film on his own. He’s tactless and self-serving, but also incredibly stupid and clownish, more concerned with the state of his flashy suit or dying from infection than the possibility of being killed by one of the others. His failed efforts to motivate his cronies to grab the money for him is riotously funny. Brie Larson also continues a streak of hard, cool, and interesting women in genre pics this year, her Justine pairing nicely with her equally committed but equally underused work in KONG: SKULL ISLAND. Still, she does quite literally get the last laugh.
There’s also abundant style to spare, as Wheatley displayed in last year’s messy, weird, and fascinating HIGH-RISE. Emma Fryer’s costume designs are wonderfully indicative of the setting and personalities. From Ord’s “jumper” and sport coat combo to Justine’s blue ensemble complete with scarves to Vernon’s prized suit, everything starts off pretty and ends, understandably, in complete muddy, bloody disarray. The warehouse itself even has quite a bit of character, but its potential seems wasted by Wheatley’s sporadic filmmaking that never gives us an opportunity to understand the geography of the locale. It’s problematic, to say the least, that once the conflict explodes and the lines are drawn that we have a hard time distinguishing where the lines actually are, and who’s shooting whom. Everyone seems interchangeable, not because of the performers, but because the rapid editing leaves very little clue as to who or what we’re looking at before jumping to something completely disconnected. Not helping things is Laurie Rose’s camerawork which, admittedly beautiful at times, is mostly grounded, literally, by the writhing, crawling combatants.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that there are plenty of hints within FREE FIRE that show the potentially great film it could have been with the right tweaking. There are moments that break through the dust left by ricocheting ammunition that are gut-bustingly funny and quite thrilling, but they’re hampered by a screenplay and concept with padding in all the wrong places. For every magnificent music cue of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”, there’s endless minutes of indistinguishable chaos and muttered curse words. It’s strange that something can be so entertaining and maddening in equal measure, almost at the same time. There’s no focus in the absurdity of it all, jumping about with reckless abandon, and while that may embody the confusion of the circumstances, it leaves us exhausted, disengaged, and frustrated. In the end, Wheatley doesn’t provide us with any meaning to take from the bloodbath, no viewpoint or opinion, and while that’s maybe saying something, it’s also saying nothing. If only Ord would have finished his John Denver story, we might have learned at least one thing.
Be on the lookout for more posts on new releases from 2017, and feel free to explore other series on the blog as well. As always, thanks for reading!