Ben Wheatley’s tedious and tiresome tribute to gunplay, “Free Fire,” is a self-indulgent and meaningless exercise in genre and style. It is seemingly born from the idea that it would be a real kick in the pants to outfit a posse of great actors in ugly ’70s duds and have them relentlessly shoot at each other in a crumbling factory for an hour and a half. That’s it. That’s the whole idea. Some fun.
Starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Cillian Murphy and Sam Riley, among others, the setup is thin at best, and feels like a deleted scene from Shane Black’s far more amusing ’70s genre tribute, “The Nice Guys.” Justine (Larson) and Ord (Hammer) broker a gun deal between an ostentatious South African, Vernon (Copley), and a member of the Irish Republican Army (Murphy). Things go south when Vernon’s driver (Jack Reynor) recognizes the other driver (Sam Riley) as a junkie dirtbag who assaulted his female cousin at a nightclub the night before, and suddenly everyone’s shooting at each other.
There’s not one shred of suspense or tension throughout – the geography of the shootout is chaotic and confusing as the characters crawl and writhe on the floor of the destroyed factory, sweaty and bloody and dirty, shooting willy-nilly. One shouts that he doesn’t know what side he’s on anymore, and it’s a relatable feeling – as audience members, we don’t know what side anyone is on anymore, and it doesn’t even matter. In all the rubble, polyester and switching allegiances, it’s impossible to know or even care.
Written by Wheatley and his frequent collaborator Amy Jump, the dialogue wants to embody gangster movie cool, but punchlines get lost in the jumble of atrocious accent work and the pew-pew of bullets ricocheting. The best lines go to Hammer, who isn’t funny. Copley is funny, but he doesn’t get too many humdingers. By far the worst part of the screenplay is Justine – as the only woman, she has to endure an onslaught of bad pickup lines and crass comments about violence against women. Her character’s journey eventually feels cheaply earned and false.
The filmmakers have established a group of low-life dirtbags without any worthwhile characteristics or motivations. It’s impossible to care about any of them, which is a problem. As each one is injured or offed, the others characters make snarky remarks. The whole highly stylized affair is dripping with irony, and that extends to life and death. Bloodshed and murder is played for laughs.
“Free Fire” certainly isn’t the first film to traffic in ironic gratuitous violence but it’s an entirely empty homage, a hollow pastiche. It’s a Tarantino-esque, “Goodfellas”-inspired tribute to ‘70s gangster movies, but it possesses none of the spiritual torment of Martin Scorsese (who happens to be an executive producer on this) and not a drop of the smarts of Quentin Tarantino. It tries to be parody and tribute at the same time and can’t reconcile those conflicting impulses.
In 2017 America, it’s more than a little difficult to yuk it up at the sight of meaningless gun violence played for entertainment purposes. That’s a reality of life, and trying to find pleasure or entertainment in an orgy of gunplay feels queasy and uncomfortable. Without soul or wit, we’re left with nothing but bad Halloween costumes and artillery. Nostalgia never felt so bad.
Cast: Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley
Director: Ben Wheatley
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: R (strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use)
Raleigh: North Hills, Grande, Brier Creek. Morrisville: Park West. Durham: Southpoint. Chapel Hill: Silverspot.