This shootout falls short of the sum of its parts

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Free Fire
Opens April 21

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley is one of the most interesting directors at work today. Wheatley injects fresh material on stale genres: in Kill List, he made a horror movie with layers, the kind we haven’t seen much of since the ’70s. in Sightseers, Wheatley pushed black comedy to new limits. Funny in inappropriate ways, but never stupid.

Wheatley’s filmography, however, is far from immaculate. He is often self-indulgent (High-Rise could have been a corrosive satire but gets lost along the way) and he doesn’t particularly care if the audience is along for the ride (A Field in England is just short of inscrutable).
Free Fire embodies both of Wheatley’s main flaws. In fact, more than a movie, Free Fire feels like an exercise in style: The characters are barely sketched (they have one trait each) and the flimsy plot barely holds up as framing. Thankfully, the exercise is a shoot ’em up stripped to basics — intrinsically entertaining — and most of the cast gives adds some flavor to stock roles.

The film is set in Boston, circa 1978. A group of IRA members led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) plans to purchase a number of automatic weapons from a shifty South African dealer (Sharlto Copley) in an abandon warehouse. The already tense exchange shifts into hyperdrive when a previous conflict between their underlings comes to the forefront.

Cool heads be damned, a gun fight ensues. And it’s not just the dealers and the Irish battling each other — the group dynamics on each side come into play and cause as much trouble as the other guys. The IRA angle is neglected: any paramilitary organization would have done.

It’s clear Wheatley put a lot of thought in the geography of the warehouse, the number of bullets (the low caliber weapons allow the cast to go on despite being shot multiple times) and the level of stress the characters endure. That said, very little of this feels like it matters at all.

Free Fire is at its best when it puts interpersonal relationships at the forefront: Sharlto Copley plays an extroverted South African — much like himself — and hits it out of the park. Same goes for Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as the deal broker and Sam Riley (On the Road) as a singularly inept henchman. Brie Larsen’s character is underwritten and the Oscar winner gets buried under the Brits’ easy rapport.

As Free Fire moves along, only curiosity keeps the audience’s attention going (certainly not emotional investment). This is one of those cases in which the cast seems to be having a grand ole time, but the general public is not invited to this party.

Imagine spending 90 minutes watching someone else playing videogames. This is minor Wheatley and one can only hope whatever he learned here pays off in the future. ❧