In a strange paradox, executing a proper farce demands preternatural planning. Stray but a little from the knife’s edge, and the tone can spiral out of control as the conflicting elements of the film separate like a broken sauce. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire suffers such a fate, though it isn’t for lack of effort or a gripping central idea. The film tries to position some idiosyncratic characters in a bottle, shake everything up, and let them shoot guns at each other for 75 minutes, but too many of these elements are just a bit off the mark. The characters and the performances mostly hit, and the inciting event feels reasonable, but the organization and the length of the fight strains comprehension and ends up being to repetitive to hold the spectator’s interest. Free Fire does a better job than most genre-bending farces, but ultimately it just feels too boring for a movie centered around a free-for-all firefight.
The no-nonsense plot of Free Fire starts everything off on the right foot. Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy) are IRA members looking to buy some guns from a South African named Vernon (Sharlto Copley. Justine (Brie Larson) is their intermediary, and Ord (Armie Hammer) is Vernon’s. There’s a no-nonsense meeting, everyone is introduced, and the merchandise parsed over. There’s a snag or two, but nothing too serious. Then the respective drivers recognize each other from a bar fight the night before.
Tempers erupt, and the excessive ridiculousness is on.
The shooters claim their ground, yell insults at each other, and generally fire haphazardly at pretty much anything that moves. There are more than a dozen characters involved in the fire fight, and for the most part they are all differentiated and interesting. Brie Larson’s Justine is a wonderful little badass, Armie Hammer’s Ord is a joint-smoking cocksure with an infectious bravado, and Sharlto Copley’s Vernon is an hilarious caricature of self-importance. Cillian Murphy brings his standard charisma and power to Chris. Even the ancillary characters a well-realized and get some amusing shots in. All-in-all, the characters are set up much like the plot: free of nonsense, and to the point.
Unfortunately, as soon as the second act starts, Free Fire tortuously unravels.
This is the major weakness. Free Fire isn’t confident enough in where it wants to go. There is an obvious and concerted effort to imbue the shooting gallery with some kind of forward momentum by introducing specific plot elements, but nothing really detracts from the haphazard firefight. Characters are left shooting at each other because others shot at them, and vice versa. The slapdash feel may be a part of the film’s aesthetic, but if that is the case then Wheatley failed to capitalize upon it. The whole thing just kind of drones one. As more and more characters get shot, everyone is reduced to hobbling and crawling on the ground, slowing the pace of each sequence. It is astounding just how boring Free Fire can get in its later sequences.
In the more energetic moments, Free Fire suffers from a geography problem. The warehouse where the fighting takes place is nondescript and looks the same from most of the camera angles. So, when people start shooting, it can be difficult to understand who is shooting in what direction and at whom. This is the case even when the action moves to a side location, and is complicated by some extra players that are introduced later. The camerawork and the editing add more to the confusion. Again – maybe this is an intentional stylistic choice, but if so it is never really exploited for cinematic gain. It just continues and continues and continues up until the final minutes of the film.
Free Fire is not bereft of entertainment value, nor is it the only film to botch a solid set up by not being sure how to develop beyond its central idea. As it stands, Free Fire feels destined to escape attention upon its initial release, but slowly gain a quiet following as people discover it on rainy weekends and appreciate the things that the film does well, while tolerating its missteps.