Pulp flick shoots wildly with no bullseye in sight
On paper, “Free Fire” sounds like a movie I would really, really like. And now I'm going to tell you why I really didn't.
It's a perfect setup for over-the-top pulp with a juicy '70s feel and setting. There's a great cast. I mean, really, what could go wrong? Well, a lot.
It's 1978 in Boston. We meet a group of disparate ne'er-do-wells who are about to partake in some seedy activity.
From across the pond, we've got Frank and Chris (Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy), a pair looking to purchase some weapons in bulk for the Irish Republican Army. Their connection is Justine (Brie Larson), who brings them to a darkened warehouse where the rest of the story will take place.
On the selling end of this arms deal are Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a pompous white South African whose bark is bigger than his bite, and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). Their liaison is the cool and collected Ord (Armie Hammer).
Everything should go off without a hitch, and then the hitches begin to pile up. First, the weapons aren't the same as what was requested. Then, a petty fight between two low-level henchmen starts the bullets flying. And, oh, do the bullets fly.
Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley (“Kill List,” “High-Rise”) sets up his bullet ballet like a stage play, bringing the parties into one setting and just letting them go at it for about an hour of gun battle. And this is in a movie that clocks in at a tidy 85 minutes.
Here's the part where this sounds good on paper. With the right execution, this could be much more than a gimmick. Wheatley never finds that execution.
He's an obvious fan of '70s cinema — with Martin Scorcese serving as executive producer of the film, no less — but it's inescapable for a modern artist not to feel the looming shadow of another big fan of gritty '70s crime cinema: Quentin Tarantino.
“Free Fire” is what would happen if you took the warehouse scene in “Reservoir Dogs” and made it three times as long. But it's also what would happen if you took away all the setup of “Dogs” that made audiences care about what happened.
The bullets fly early and often, although comically and without explanation — all these hardened criminals are terrible shots. Pretty much every character gets winged, giving them opportunities to wince and shout one-liners, but no one seems to know how to aim for the kill.
Wheatley also isn't great at establishing the space of the shootout or the overlapping allegiances at play, so his twists fall short. The cast is game, and there are some chuckles to be had, but they deserved better. And so, it seems, did I.