Does Free Fire hit the mark, or is it a misfire? Francesca Amoroso stares down the barrel of Ben Wheatley’s new film.
Explosive in both its humour and literal cacophony of gunfire, Free Fire is another stellar example of director Ben Wheatley’s unwavering ingenuity. Set entirely in an abandoned Boston warehouse in 1978, we witness a diverse band of characters embark on a supposed simple gun deal that evolves into a disastrous turn of events fuelled by violence, petty insults and of course, guns.
The film is undeniably a narrative feat, faced with the prospect of a one-location feature Wheatley and Amy Jump’s script fills the necessary impetus for an hour and a half of gunfire and retaliation. The cast finds their humour within cartoonish portrayals of 70s gangsters and lackeys, reminiscent of the popular B-movies from this era. We enjoy both slapstick and intelligent hilarity, and those minor references to, no doubt, Wheatley’s influences for the film; the most obvious being the locale, a hark back to a darker, more gruesome version of a warehouse scenario seen in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, or the more subtle repetition of John Denver which I suspect alludes to the singer’s apparent military service during the Vietnam war.
Ultimately, Wheatley has created a highly exaggerated, vigorous action flick that is entertaining and satisfying in its originality, but falls short in its construction. This is due, in part, to the wildly difficult task Wheatley set himself, allowing a single storyline enacted by few players on a solitary stage. Despite the impressiveness of attempting this obviously problematic narrative structure, the film cannot rely solely on its inventiveness, and regrettably the humour is patchy, disorganised and lacks a certain rhythm. The script meanders between one-liners, situational and physical comedy, never truly finding it’s footing; put simply there are moments where it seems a tad basic, or perhaps lethargic.
Due to its singular setting the film feels like an elaborately staged play, forced to abandon the fantastical whimsy of transportative filmmaking to instead derive its entertainment solely from the script, physical action and character dynamic. With no variation in environment, actors or narrative incentive, the necessity of an exceptionally strong script becomes all the more prominent. Faced with these difficulties, the film is a little stilted and uneven, as if the humour was merely choreographed on paper and not entirely envisioned within the reality of the film. Instead of being organically produced, those one-liners the film relies far too heavily on, give the impression of originating from a desperate attempt to keep the comedy clever and quick-witted. It becomes almost exhausting in its inability to keep the movie moving.
The narrative eventually descends into a formless and vague spectacle that, while is charming, is absent of any real meaning. The lack of value the film designates to its own plot is either its greatest strength and innovative diversion from your average action feature or is fundamentally its definitive flaw, dragging its audience through a mirage of pointless gunfire and grunts to an ill-defined ending.
The absence of spatial awareness within the room helps to add to this odd rhythm that plagues the movie. We are never quite sure where everyone is within relation to one another and while this is, I’m sure, supposed to add to the mayhem and confusion of the film, this relentless disorientation loses its charisma. As we helplessly witness the gang of gunslingers plunge into a chaotic confusion between enemy and friend, we find that we too are similarly confused about where this is going and why. Perhaps this is the reason the finale feels so uneventful and unaffecting. It’s as though for the entirety of the film we are told to embrace the lack of investment in the narrative and are then suddenly demanded to have paid more attention.
Although I found there to be a lot of flaws within this film, I did however thoroughly enjoy it. I merely lament for the potential this film could have reached and am therefore more exasperated at its near-miss faultlessness. Free Fire is not perfect, but is perfect enough for me to have wished that it were.
Its divisiveness amongst audiences only emphasises Wheatley’s achievement in producing a film that deviates from the norm. It cannot be defined by one rudimentary worn-out Hollywood genre and is a fresh reimagining of the humble shootout. Its violence is unapologetic, its characters memorable and its humour, while inconsistent, is gratifying. Wheatley has once more proven himself in his prowess for sheer originality; he is intelligent, funny and this addition to his rostra is a compelling and commendable one.
Free Fire is out now in UK cinemas and will be released in US cinemas on April 21st.