Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Patrick Bergin, Mark Monero
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 4/21/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 20, 2017
The gunplay in Free Fire—and there is a lot of it—is akin to a particularly violent game of tag. The staging of its characters, taking cover behind various pillars and objects within the vast space of an abandoned factory floor, conjures thoughts of hide-and-seek. To those elements, add the nearly non-stop bantering between the characters and the movie's generally jokey attitude, and it means that there are virtually no stakes to the movie's premise, which pits two teams of criminals against each other in an extended firefight.
It's safe to assume that screenwriters Ben Wheatley (who also directed the movie) and Amy Jump are fully aware of this. In fact, the notion that this is a game seems to be intentional. Every character here is shot at one point in the movie or another. It's usually just a graze or a wound that results in injury to a limb, giving each of the characters a handicap in the game and, in most cases, restricting each of them to a certain piece of cover from the onslaught of bullets.
The movie's violence doesn't mean much in terms of real consequences (Even a guy who's shot in the head gets up and starts walking around later). That is until the third act, when it's required that these characters start dying off one at a time. There has to a winner, after all.
The setup is a gun deal gone wrong. A group of IRA members, led by Chris (Cillian Murphy), have come to the U.S. to buy automatic rifles from Vernon (Sharlto Copley, getting a lot of mileage out of his accent and even more from his cowardly desperation) and his gang. Ord (Armie Hammer, very funny in how very cool he is through the ensuing chaos) is Vernon's boss, and Justine (Brie Larson) is the IRA members' American liaison.
The skirmish begins when it turns out that Stevo (Sam Riley), one of the IRA guys, had a violent encounter with the cousin of one of Vernon's men at a bar the previous night. Everyone starts shooting and running for cover, before shooting again and shouting insults in between the gunfire.
What's the point, if there is any, to the playing of this nasty game? There really isn't one, except wondering who, if anyone, will win it in the end. That end game is basically arbitrary, since part of the game is that there's really no skill behind it. There's never a sense of the established geography of this location, meaning that any strategy the characters might be using doesn't mean much. Bullets ricochet off metallic surfaces and strike anyone who's in the way. Characters lose track of where their opponents and allies are, leading to at least one case of friendly fire (At one point, character jokes that he has forgotten which side he's on). It's bedlam, and again, that seems to be intentional on Wheatley's part.
This means that there's a better question: Is there a point beyond the game itself? Surely there must be, because, otherwise, we're simply watching characters engaged in a life-or-death battle—in which that sense of desperation is never genuinely felt—with the odds of survival left almost completely to chance—or, better, the machinations of the screenwriters.
It can't be the violence, which is lost in the confusion of Wheatley (who edited the movie with Jump) quickly cutting between the participants' shooting and being hit. Save for a few more gruesome deaths near the end, the impact of bullets plays like an irritating mosquito bite or, at worst, an unexpected bee sting.
It can't be the characters, who have little time to establish anything unique about them before the bullets start flying. Once the shooting starts, they're defined primarily by the team they're on, the weapons they're shooting, and the injuries they've received. It can't be the dialogue, either, because, as colorfully succinct as it is, much of it is basically intimidation (shouting insults to an opponent) or descriptive (Essentially, who shot whom, or who got shot by whom).
I'm asking and wondering about all of these things, not necessarily in an effort to judge or denigrate the movie, but because it is, to a certain degree, entertaining. It's simply difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is.
The individual components of the narrative don't work on their own. The choreography of the shooting is messy. After the tension of the buildup to the first shot being fired, there's no suspense for the remainder of the movie (There's a flash of the stakes being raised with the addition of a couple of unaffiliated snipers to the mix, but that threat is dispatched rather quickly). It's all blind and reckless shooting (Wheatley and Jump eventually add a race for a phone in an upstairs office, but the shift in location only leads to more of the same, albeit in closer quarters). The characters are one-dimensional, and the dialogue is amusing at first but ultimately redundant.
As a whole and in the moment, though, the shortcomings of these pieces aren't as noticeable. They become more so as the narrative itself becomes repetitive, but for a while, Wheatley maintains a sense of kinetic momentum that keeps the pieces together. Because its individual elements are hollow, though, Free Fire simply can't sustain that energy.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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