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Free Fire
★★☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

The action/comedy Free Fire is the latest feature from the British filmmaking team of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump (Kill List, A Field in England, High-Rise). The couple has made a name for themselves by working in multiple genres, often inventively crisscrossing narrative and stylistic tropes within the same picture. While Free Fire features high-profile American actors, it is still rooted in the British indie tradition of all five of Wheatley’s previous directorial efforts.

The "story" (or, more accurately, the central action) concerns an arms deal gone wrong. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley play IRA agents planning to buy M16s from a white South African (Sharlto Copley) and his unlikely partner, a former Black Panther (Babou Ceesay). The brokers of the deal are two cool customers played by Brie Larson and Armie Hammer. All three pairs bring along teams of gunmen and other underlings. It’s not the lack of trust between each party nor the fact that the merchandise isn’t exactly what was ordered that prevents the deal from going down, but a preexisting beef between two of the opposing henchmen. Once things get personal and shots start firing, the film turns into a protracted shoot out, continuously broken up by moments of levity.  

Free Fire is an unapologetic homage to 1970s crime cinema. It’s even set in the ‘70s, though the choice of period seems motivated more by clothes, hairstyles, and music than any political or social subtext. Wheatley and Jump delight in their attempt to out-Tarantino Quentin Tarantino (or out-McDonagh Martin McDonagh). Their concept is clever enough: elevate all the secondary and minor characters in a basic crime movie plot to an equal status with the leads, trap them all in what is typically the opening sequence or the third-act climax of such a picture, and then drag that single scene out for the length of an entire feature. 

Unfortunately, the characters they’ve created are not engaging enough to sustain our interest through what is little more than an unoriginal, self-satisfied genre exercise. Some of the actors seem interchangeable, while some are distinctive to a fault. In particular Copley (Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Elysium, and Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake) wears out his welcome after five minutes (I can’t fathom why people continue casting this off-putting scenery-chewer in lead roles). And while Wheatley pulls off a few cool shots, his visual style lacks precision and variety. By the time we’re a half hour into the symphony of cartoon violence, everyone has been shot multiple times, yet still seems perfectly capable of continuing the fight. Maintaining an audience’s interest in this type of consequence-free mayhem is extremely difficult unless the participants involved are so compelling we can’t help but get excited every time the film cuts back to check in on what each individual will do next. But the action here is so repetitive and the characters so dimensionless, we eventually just tune out. 

Aside from good actors embodying well-crafted roles, the most vital element to any single-location picture is the setting. In a movie like this, the space in which everything goes down should feel like a character itself. But the abandoned umbrella factory of Free Fire mostly just comes off as big and open and dark and dirty, which would describe pretty much any disused industrial space. Wheatley’s uninspired quick cutting, tight close-ups in a widescreen aspect ratio all work against the basic requirement of establishing the geography of the building. Ultimately, apart from a few smart quips and amusing bits of physicality, Free Fire is long past the sell-by date for a movie like this. Everything feels derivative of too many previous genre homages.

Twitter Capsule:
Disappointingly smug and overripe. Everything feels derivative too many previous genre homages.

Directed by Ben Wheatley
Produced by Andrew Starke

Written by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley

With: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor, Mark Monero, Patrick Bergin, Sara Dee, and Tom Davis

Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Editing: Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump
Music: Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury

Runtime: 90 min
Release Date: 21 April 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color