Eight people walk into an abandoned warehouse in Boston in 1978. There’s Chris (Cillian Murphy: Anthropoid, In the Heart of the Sea), whom we can presume is IRA because he has an Irish accent and he’s there to buy enough guns to supply a small army. There’s Justine (Brie Larson: Kong: Skull Island, Room), who has brokered the deal with Ord (Armie Hammer: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Entourage)… or is it Ord who has brokered the deal with seller Vernon (Sharlto Copley: Chappie, Maleficent)? Or did Justine broker the deal with Vernon, and if so, who the heck is Ord and why is he there? (Justine is here so there can be a woman onscreen.) Argh. I’m pretty sure Frank (Michael Smiley: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Black Sea) is with Chris, though they seem sort of tenuous, but Stevo (Sam Riley: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Suite Française) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti: Bridget Jones’s Baby, High-Rise) are definitely Frank’s dimbulb muscle. Martin (Babou Ceesay: Eye in the Sky, Half of a Yellow Sun) is with Vernon.
You now know just about everything there is to know about these people that Free Fire is willing to share with us. Sometimes a movie feels so adrift in its own fecklessness that it seems as if its characters are in search of a story; Free Fire feels like its people should be mounting an expedition to find their own characters, and only then, perhaps, would they be in a position to go off in search of their story. Oh, wait: Now it’s 10 bodies in search of characters, because here come Gordon (Noah Taylor: Lost in Karastan, Edge of Tomorrow) and Harry (Jack Reynor: A Royal Night Out, Transformers: Age of Extinction), Vernon’s muscle.
Free Fire is nothing but a 90-minute shootout. Okay, more accurately, it’s maybe a 75-minute shootout: it takes a few minutes for things to go south. But still: that’s it. It’s all outrageous retro style — lookit the size of those collars! check out all that facial hair! — and ironically mellow John Denver songs on the soundtrack to accompany the ironic violence. The cinematographer’s palette is very mustard-and-avocado. Oh, 70s: never change. Free Fire is production design in search of a movie.
For some reason that I cannot fathom, British director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Sightseers), with his frequent coscreenwriter Amy Jump, decided that taking the least interesting sequence of any action movie and blowing it up into its own movie was a good idea. I suspect that Wheatley believes he is satirizing this cinematic cliché, but what is perhaps meant to be a sendup of a thing just becomes a tedious example of the thing. This isn’t even a well-constructed movie shootout! There’s no physical context for any of the action: we never have any sense how the various factions’ hiding spaces across the warehouse-floor shooting gallery relate to one another. Apart from one moment of humor that derives from the unexpected, there’s nothing clever or funny in blank characters throwing bullets at one another.
There’s also nothing clever or funny or satirical in how, during the occasional break in the bullets flying, insults fly. Maybe Free Fire is meant to be a sendup of the toxic masculinity that powers this kind of action, but again, just holding up a thing as an example of itself does not a satire make. (Grown men whining “I’ve been insulted!” as justification for violence is, yeah, pretty much every action movie ever.) The deal starts to go sour when Stevo realizes that Harry is the guy he got into a bustup with the night before, over Stevo insulting and assaulting Harry’s female cousin. The defense of their female property has a long tradition as a motivation for men in action movies… and that is exactly what it is here, too. What’s fresh or exciting or even mildly amusing about that being deployed by a filmmaker yet again?
Free Fire may run a short 90 minutes, but with almost nothing going on, you’d think that — between all the dick measuring and the hitting on Justine, which many of the jerks here think is a cool thing to do — the movie would find time to offer us a reason to care who lives and who dies. You’d think this truly awesome cast would be allowed some room to craft compelling characters. You’d think the movie might be able to generate some momentum for itself instead of just sitting there stuck in first gear. Free Fire feels like a padded out version of its own trailer. Forget actors in search of characters or characters in search of a story: this is barely more than a poster in search of a movie.