Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is the clever kind of snarky, violent and high-concept crime flick that feels of a different time and place. It’s a movie that acts like some forgotten ’90s debut feature from a creative new director with more potential than budget, the type of movie that’s more an exercise in attitude and low budget ingenuity than a quality motion picture. However, Free Fire certainly doesn’t have the feel of the sixth feature and first attempt at a commercial success from director Wheatley, fresh off the first real creative breakthrough of his career, High-Rise (2016).
Because of all this, the whole affair feels a little ho-hum and pointless. My criticism may be unwarranted, though, since a lot of my feelings fall into the realm of expecting more from Wheatley at this point. Any sense of humor is washed out by the film’s grating cynicism, while the plot is simple and has nothing to say. The action is muddled and boring and near impossible to follow, and while I commend Wheatley for trying to upend the action picture in his own subversive ways, it all feels inconsistent. It’s the type of movie that’s biting and funny at one point and terribly confusing and dull at the next.
The plot is incredibly simple. Set in the ’70s (a nice touch, since it keeps cellphones from mucking up the works), IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley, Rogue One) — with the help of Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) — have convened in an dingy, abandoned warehouse to buy guns from Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his cohorts. The deal quickly goes south and a shootout ensues, all of it taking place in this one location.
Free Fire is surprisingly realistic in its action, as there are no superhuman feats of athleticism. Almost everyone’s wounded immediately, so most of the gunfighting involves people crawling around on a dusty floor or crouched around debris. The strange, frustrating aspect of this is how the film plays free and loose with this realism. Characters just keep pulling ammo from their pockets, and guns seemingly come from nowhere, not to mention how flippant Free Fire is with violence, making for a film that never strikes a proper, consistent tone.
Free Fire has a definite early Tarantino vibe — sometimes little more than the part in every Tarantino movie where the whole cast of characters ends up shooting one another in various ways. But in this case, it’s been stretched out over a feature length. I can’t say I’m opposed to this in principle. When Wheatley wants to be funny or have quirky, engaging characters, the film really thrives. But action isn’t a strength for him, and I often found myself lost in contemplation as some indecipherable shootout started up on screen. Plus, this is the kind of movie that prides itself on its own cheekiness, and this approach demands a clever payoff, something that’s simply not there. This isn’t to wholeheartedly trash Free Fire. The times it’s entertaining are top-notch — it’s the inconsistency of the film that makes it a bit frustrating, a bit disappointing and impossible to wholly recommend. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark Asheville and Grail Moviehouse.