British shoot-em-up Free Fire runs out of bullets

Soft boiled.

Free Fire

1.5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Starring Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Jack Reynor and Sam Riley.

Opens Apr. 21.

click to enlarge Left-to-right: Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sharlto Copley, and Armie Hammer in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire - A24
Left-to-right: Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sharlto Copley, and Armie Hammer in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire

Action-comedy Free Fire is the sixth movie from British genre mainstay Ben Wheatley, whose last project was 2015's ambitious, messy J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise. With Free Fire, Wheatley and his regular bench of collaborators—writer/editor Amy Jump, cinematographer Laurie Rose — have scaled down tremendously, but the messiness remains.

The setup is dead simple. It's the 70s: loud suits, aviators and chest hair. IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) pull up to a warehouse somewhere in Boston for an arms deal. They meet with Justine (Brie Larson), who connects them with the seller: fast-talking prick Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his beardy American muscle, Ord (Armie Hammer). The guns Vernon brings to the sale are not the M16s Chris wanted; the sale is made regardless, but tensions between a couple of the attendant lackeys explode into violence. Cue the shooting.

You'd think an action movie would have to work to fuck up a premise this basic, but for the most part Free Fire doesn't exert much effort at all. The comedy doesn't land at all; generic, slack post-Guy Ritchie banter is left to die by uneven editing and blustery delivery. The gunfights don't get better than the first shootout, which begins with a succession of slowmo shots that track the various players as they split off into factions. The camera keeps things clean and punchy here, and special mention goes to the sound design, which captures the unique characteristics of each gun. I'm aware that's a hugely uninteresting compliment.

Unfortunately the film stays here in second gear for the rest of its runtime. After the characters scatter to their respective corners of the warehouse, they spend their time crawling around and shooting at each other from behind crates. The spatial clarity Wheatley constructs in the first shootout dissolves into an endless series of directionless shot/reverse shots, with barely any gore, gimmicks, or meanness to distinguish it. Action fans may long for the fleet, inventive touch of Hong Kong director Johnnie To, whose 2016 Three is a movie seemingly born of the desire to beautifully orchestrate a hospital-wide shootout.

Free Fire is color-graded to the same goddamned shade of orange that seemingly every movie has to share now; combine this with the oddly flat one-liners and restrained violence and Free Fire starts to feel like Wheatley with the edges sanded off. His 2011 Kill List was notable for its brutal, nasty violence as much as for its steadily eerie build toward that violence; 2012's Sightseers was a comedy rendered in smears of blood. Free Fire could be anybody. It's boring. It's loud, but it's boring. For a director whose work has been compared to Nicolas Roeg and Stanley Kubrick, that's a disappointment. 

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