Free Fire is a burst of violence more interesting as exercise than execution

Half an indulgence by a filmmaker I wasn’t aware had earned a blank check yet, half a project so small and loaded enough with known actors that it would be shocking if it didn’t get produced, that contradiction of place in the industry is the core of what Free Fire is.

An exercise of actors fucking around and a filmmaker playing with an idea, it’s mostly interesting only so far as it is those things. There’s almost not enough substance here (outside of basically a single idea that’s picked up and dropped seemingly by whim) to qualify as a narrative film, more an extended and constantly elongating sequence that asks and answers questions within it all. Free Fire is essentially a film-length action scene with everything that might ultimately imply about its storytelling.

The plot could not be simpler. In Boston, a group of IRA rebels led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) meeting up with a group of arms dealers led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and facilitated by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). A few misunderstandings during the deal lead to an all-hands-on-deck shootout between the two parties for about an hour of film time. And that’s it.

I seem prone to underplaying this film, and I feel like that’s not totally fair. For all of its messiness, Free Fire delivers exactly what it asks for. There’s a wicked sense of fun to its mayhem, a group of actors who are getting the chance to cut loose and play off each other and do a whole lot of real ridiculous gun-fighting, because that’s literally what this is, one long gun fight.

Plus, I absolutely have to give director/writer Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump for playing Free Fire just up the right alley. It’s a film about testosterone coursing through the veins and getting into some truly pointless and messy violence. No one gets hero moments, no one gets to be a big badass.

There’s just a bunch of misfit assholes being misfit assholes. Some of the misfit assholes are charming. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy have a surprisingly fun bit of chemistry, Sharlto Copley plays into the fact that he’s at his best when he’s a ridiculous human being, and Armie Hammer as smarmy and confident is basically about as good as it gets.

Also, A+ sound design. Seriously, the sound ballet of bullets plays so enormously well, and the way the entire thing plays through tracking the various moans and yells and and dragging noises is incredibly interesting and so much easier to track than the visuals.

Which is perhaps the major problem of Free Fire. Wheatley is enormously talented as a stylist, but it seems like he’s always been better when his locations are more lavish or more explicitly easy to track. Locked down to one location and having people move through the space, he seems so stuck in the place and loses track of his action.

All this is to say that Free Fire is often visually incoherent, bullets flying all over the place with little track of where they’re going, who they’re hitting, who fired and why. It gets dizzying to figure out what these people are doing and where they’re going and it just feels like a total mess, a five-car pileup of violence.

Maybe that’s the point? If Free Fire has anything on its mind is the pointlessness of all this violence (no one really learns anything and no one knows what’s going on or who’s on what side) along with the testosterone that’s fueling it. But thematic point can’t get in the way of the construction of the film in a way that actually harms it.

It’s also because Wheatley picks up and drops the thematic tangling as he wishes, losing it in the orgy of gunfire. High-Rise, Wheatley’s underrated last film, is brilliant precisely because the ideas it plays with soaks every part of the film. Free Fire doesn’t have that and it makes all of that tangling feel ultimately pointless, its cinematic errors more ultimately noticeable.

Free Fire is a roller coaster at a state fair, fun and thrilling while you’re on it, but forgettable and I wouldn’t suggest looking too closely at its construction.

Grade: C+

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