FREE FIRE Review
Director: Ben Wheatley
The one-location feature has always been something near and dear to me. Its narrative economy, reliance on clear compositions, geographical awareness, and richly layered character writing have been adapted by filmmakers far and wide. Polanski came to prominence with his sailboat drama, KNIFE IN THE WATER, and the bulk of Hitchcock’s career can be measured through elegantly staged single locations, whether it be ROPE or DIAL M FOR MURDER. When Ringo Lam’s CITY ON FIRE inspired Tarantino to dial it up to 11 and release RESERVOIR DOGS, the single-location action film became somewhat of its own subgenre. And for good reason: it’s brutally difficult to pull off. In addition to the aforementioned quirks of the thriller, the action film needs to propel itself with the forward momentum of a cannonball. With FREE FIRE, director Ben Wheatley has taken a shot at this niche concept as well, and oddly enough, he’s crafted a film that’s got all the necessary pieces in place for some engaging finger-pointing, but wobbles so much in its choreography that it never really takes off the way it should.
Starring Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, and Armie Hammer, among others, FREE FIRE is an all-out ‘70s barrage, a beautifully realized vision of a gun drop gone awry. Introducing its ensemble with some rather questionable Tarantino fanboyisms, Wheatley builds up a roster of mostly unlikeable, morally bankrupt nutjobs. Larson is front and center, the connecting thread between the American salesmen and their Irish customers. With that, Larson also bears witness to the escalations between these hotheads that leads to the eponymous shootout. Conceptually, everything is in the right place here. We have selfish, narcissistic men with a penchant for violence and one woman who can’t seem to wrangle them to save her life. FREE FIRE is a categorically brilliant concept on paper: A declaration of everything wrong with machismo and toxic masculinity, which never forgets that women can be just as unforgiving.
Gun Drop or Fleetwood Mac biopic?
And that’s perhaps what bothers me the most about Wheatley’s film. For a film that sets up its ensemble so well (I’ll concede that the acting isn’t fantastic, but everything is serviceable at worst), it bombs the actual firefight. I watched, scratching my head, rather perplexed about what I was seeing. Is this seriously what Wheatley is going to screw up? The one thing the film markets itself as? The actor’s choreography itself is fine. In fact, for the majority of FREE FIRE’s runtime, characters lie behind brick walls, ammo crates, and a brightly colored van. The issue is that I never get a strong spatial awareness of where everyone is relative to one another, a fault that lies in Wheatley’s hands entirely. I understand in what direction we are shooting, and I know when someone gets shot (after all, only one in every ten shots hits anybody), but the film totally flunks in giving us an elegant master shot. This becomes all the more irksome when the film introduces two sharpshooters who seem to have a pretty solid vantage point. Why can’t I see what they’re seeing? How come there isn’t a static wide shot that showcases where exactly each team is hiding? At its best, FREE FIRE is confusing, but at its worst, it’s nauseating.
Analyzing Wheatley’s camera is a complicated affair. On one hand, the sepia-tinted grain captures a beautiful sense of time and space, and everything predating the firefight is undeniably cool in its suave, pastel chique. The best moments in the shootout occur when the camera whip pans with the speeding bullets, making it a little easier to read exactly who is getting shot and where they are hiding. As long as the camera is on its feet (or tracks), FREE FIRE feels somewhat inspired. But when Wheatley is simply cutting between dry coverage of hunkered down shooters, it starts to fall into the trap of dump-truck directing, relying on coverage the same way a improv-laden comedy would. That isn’t to say FREE FIRE isn’t entertaining. I must admit that the film’s most ingenious writing decision is the fact that almost everybody is shot in the leg or the gut relatively early. The fact that these individuals engage in a shootout that involves crawling through the rubble of an abandoned warehouse is not only hilarious, but really accentuates the unglamorous nature of gun violence.
Yaas, Gun Violence!
The casting choices are what elevate Wheatley’s film, making up for much of the boring action. Each individual scowls in pain and tenses up as they slither from A to B, and this sickening, pointless violence only elevates our understanding of the film’s ultimate inconsequence. Copley—albeit performing the same role for the xth time in his career—delivers a comically charged performance, while Hammer is infinitely cool with his bushy beard and tailored suit. Each supporting lead does a solid job adding needless stress to an already tense standoff, and Larson acts as an eye-rolling third party to the goings on. However, as much as I enjoy the function of Larson’s character, I can never really empathize with her. Outside of the misogyny of her cohorts, there’s nothing that makes her immediately likable. It’s a rather odd conundrum. Wheatley’s film seems to believe that making somebody unsympathetic will inversely make the affected party more likable. Sorry buddy, but it’s not working.
Perhaps I’ll never really understand Wheatley as a filmmaker. Having watched three of his feature films, I find him to be an endlessly fascinating storyteller who never sits right with me. I can see the intention behind FREE FIRE more clearly than I do with his previous outings, KILL LIST and HIGH-RISE, but making a shoot ’em up about the trivial, ugly nature of gun violence seems a little low-brow. As film viewers, we are so obsessed with seeing brutality that we cheer and applaud when someone gets their just deserts. It doesn’t matter how many bullets hit cement instead of flesh, or how many times people cry for help. When an unlikeable character is finally set on fire or run over by a car, we get excited. And that’s FREE FIRE’s Achilles’ heel. I’m willing to indulge Wheatley for a second and consider that his film maybe has different intentions, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are, which in turn is just as problematic. Having said that, I do know that FREE FIRE isn’t a particularly well-staged single-location action film, and as such, can confidently say that it’s arguably Wheatley’s first true misfire.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend