Amy Jump Ben Wheatley

FREE FIRE Review: 90 Minutes of Crawling and Groaning

Monday, April 24, 2017 Rob Samuelson

Injuries ruin everything. Your range of motion becomes limited and you can't perform tasks that once came so simply to you. Sometimes even walking can be excruciating, let alone performing physically at a high level. In Free Fire, co-writer and director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise) tells a story about injuries that hobble a crew of criminals attempting what should be a simple exchange: a briefcase full of cash for a few crates of automatic rifles. But, again, injuries ruin everything, including Wheatley’s every attempt to craft a compelling action film.

Photo credit: Free Fire/Facebook

Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump spend about 10 minutes on halfway witty setup with two groups of criminals meet outside of a seedy, abandoned factory on the kind of damp night that would ruin even a cheerful person’s mood, let alone a bunch of surly ne’erdowells with too much testosterone and self-regard. One group needs some guns to supply to Irish terrorists. On the Irish side, there’s Frank (Michael Smiley), a career mafioso middleman; Stevo (Sam Riley), who is Frank’s crack-smoking, womanizing brother-in-law; Chris, a kinda competent, kinda charming (though that might just be the Irish accent) fixer on hand to make things run more smoothly; Justine (Brie Larson), their American liaison who lets a stream of sexist remarks roll off her back while she looks bored; and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), who drives and smokes cigarettes. The gun runners are Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a South African dandy with an inflated sense of his own intelligence; Martin (Babou Ceesay), a former Black Panther with no patience for any of this nonsense; and Harry (Jack Reynor), a self-important driver with a chip on his shoulder because of a recent run-in with one of the Irish crew members. Between these two groups is Ord (Armie Hammer), a broker who may or may not have once been U.S. Special Forces and stands like a demigod among dunces with this crew of bickering mediocrities. These are boilerplate characters who have been portrayed for decades of tough-guy cinema, but for the most part they would still be effective if given the opportunity to continue on the path they set in these brief moments. Instead, Ord’s sardonic put downs of those around him remain the movie’s sole source of enjoyment once the shooting starts and everyone gets hurt.

That shooting, woof.

Wheatley and Jump would rather make a point about low-stakes masculine rage than wring suspense out of a tense situation. It’s interesting to point out that men often get themselves into trouble over pointless squabbles, and casting Larson to give some side-eye to their idiocy is a step in the right direction. But to make that point into a successful movie, the filmmakers need to build a rhythm based on the theme of petty male violence. Here, the bullets fly almost immediately because of a bar fight a couple characters had the night before. Wheatley’s idea of building tension here is as follows: “I fought that guy,” then one insult in each direction, then nobody backs down, then gunshots. Each character hits the deck, nursing a bleeding wound. Nobody leaves the first 10 minutes unscathed.

This has a dulling effect on the entire movie. With everyone hobbled, they must move slowly, grasping at their torn flesh while groaning loudly. They sit behind corners of walls, a van, pillars, whatever will give them some cover. Every minute or so, someone summons the strength to peek out of their hiding place to pop off a few shots, only to miss everyone every time. They crawl across the dusty floor, with nobody able to exert any physical advantages over anyone else. They are all on an even playing field, which drastically reduces the stakes for these people we may have come to care about if their predicament had been handled in a less abrupt manner. This single location should be a pressure cooker, but Wheatley directs everyone as if they have all the room in the world to catch their breath and collect their thoughts. This picture never makes urgency a priority, even with a briefcase filled with cash lying in the middle of the room, waiting for the quickest or smartest or luckiest person to grab it and bolt for the door.

Wheatley and Jump, who co-edited the film as well, continue their rhythm problems during every set piece. To their credit, they have enough self-awareness to realize their initial setup of people pointing guns at each other isn’t necessarily enough to carry this movie to feature length. They introduce larger threats to the single-room environment, but there is no escalation from handguns to rifles to the other lethal objects available in the factory. Nobody gets an adrenaline boost, even when presented with a new way to defeat their enemies. The actors’ reactions come across more like boredom than agonizing pain from which they are desperate to escape, which is particularly frustrating when it comes to the Oscar-winning Larson -- she gives an exaggerated roll of the eyes in an early scene and it is the only lively moment Justine gets.

In the end, Free Fire is a bafflingly inert experience that wastes the limited promise of its opening scene. Action requires movement. Instead, the movie is a slow, plodding flick that makes 90 minutes feel like double that because of the confounding decision to cripple every character in the same sequence, and it can’t even be bothered to let its best performer’s charisma carry things.

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
Rating: 1.5/5 stars
Available in theaters now

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