Roughly 90 percent of Free Fire is set inside a rundown warehouse, the location for a big shoot-out between warring outlaw factions. It’s as though director Ben Wheatley decided—either embracing or spoofing a tired cliché—to stage an entire movie in the spot where action pictures invariably end up anyway. We get to know this place reasonably well in the course of the 85-minute film, and you might expect the layout to be precisely oriented for the audience. If Kathryn Bigelow had directed, we would know exactly where everybody was, how far the distance between shooting perches, and the location of the exits. That kind of geographical approach gives the audience clarity.
With Wheatley’s film, it’s a free-for-all. His shots flit by so quickly and his warehouse is so undistinguished that I never knew exactly where anybody was, just that the characters were all firing their guns when anything moved. As someone who relishes action movies that allow you to actually understand what’s going on, I count this as a weakness. At the same time, Wheatley’s incoherence may be intentional. Sam Peckinpah once complained about a critic who griped that you couldn’t tell the opposing armies apart at the climax of Cross of Iron. As Peckinpah exasperatedly noted, “That was what it was all about.” So maybe Wheatley wants to disorient the viewer—we’ll have to give him that much, especially as his films High-Rise (2015) and A Field in England (2013) are deliberately discombobulating.
Wheatley has been the hip rising star of British cinema for a few years, and (in partnership with his usual screenwriter, Amy Jump) has assembled a collection of brash, sometimes surreal features. He’s got talent, and occasionally—in the violent black comedy of Sightseers, (2011), for instance—he approaches the cynical, bloody hilarity of the Black Knight’s dismemberment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. At some point, though, Wheatley needs to fulfill his promise. Free Fire doesn’t do it.
We are on the Boston waterfront in 1978. Two IRA fighters, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), have come to purchase an illicit cache of automatic weapons. The deal is brokered on the Irish side by Justine (Oscar-winner Brie Larson, from Room) and on the gun dealers’ side by Ord (Armie Hammer, who looks like he was born in a beard and turtleneck). The main gun-runner is a South African idiot called Vern (Sharlto Copley, from District 9), who understandably becomes the favorite target of both sides. A minor dispute between henchmen (the fittingly scuzzy Sam Riley and Jack Reynor) sets off a gunfight that lasts until the movie runs out of bodies to kill.
The ’78 setting brings in wide lapels and mustaches, which look cartoonish but are pretty accurate to the era’s nutso fashion sense. John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” accidentally plays on an 8-track tape while a particularly violent sequence unfolds. But that stuff’s easy, too easy. The movie’s got at least one fruitful idea at its core: that by stripping down an action film to its barest possible form—with zero plot and minimal character sketching—the absurdity of violence might be presented in all its laughable glory. In that sense, the film reminds me a little of Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage, a yakuza picture boiled down to nothing but one revenge killing following another, a bitter lampoon of the stupid romance of gangster films.
So Wheatley sees the world as a cesspool where greedy humans get what they deserve and Murphy’s Law prevails. Even with a few undeniably outstanding set pieces, that shtick gets repetitious when delivered with a continual smirk. Free Fire wants you to laugh whenever somebody gets shot, and we do, at first, because nothing’s at stake and we don’t know these characters except by their single attributes: Copley’s vanity, Hammer’s wisecracking, Larson’s—well, actually, Brie Larson doesn’t do anything except look wide-eyed and crawl around on the floor covered in blood and sawdust. From that level, even if you think Wheatley has proved a point with this movie, the director has nowhere to go but up. Free Fire, Rated R. Opens Fri., April 21 at various theaters. firstname.lastname@example.org