‘Free Fire’ Review
As I was leaving the preview screening for Free Fire, I was somewhat surprised to hear an audience member telling a compatriot that it was “the best-edited film [they’ve] seen all year.” On the one hand, the year is still short—we’re only a third of the way through it and other contenders include mish-mashed semi-coherent tripe such as The Fate of the Furious. Maybe this guy just hadn’t, you know, seen many movies this year.
That’s the only real excuse I can muster, because Free Fire is something of a visual travesty: despite the fact that it takes place almost entirely within a single room inside an abandoned warehouse, the film is cut together in such a slapdash way that it’s sometimes hard to make out who is going where and for what reason. Combined with the fact that it’s not nearly funny enough to play as a comedy nor exciting enough to play as an action movie nor intriguing enough to play as a mystery or a thriller or a heist movie, I can’t really tell you why Free Fire exists, period.
Free Fire follows two teams of criminals in the 1970s trying to lock down an arms deal. Chris (Cillian Murphy), an IRA tough in the market for automatic weapons, waits with Frank (Michael Smiley) and Justine (Brie Larson) for their hapless muscle, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). The quintet is frisked by Mr. Ord (Armie Hammer), who is acting as a sort of middleman.
Finding them free of wires, Ord takes them inside to meet Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a twitchy and dodgy South African who may be looking to pull a fast one on his potential clients. Vernon is backed up by Martin (Babou Ceesay), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Harry (Jack Reynor). When the deal goes sideways—as you know it will, as you know it must—Ord and Vern’s team square off against the IRA’s men in America and the warehouse turns into a (wait for it) free fire zone.
The gun battle that consumes the last hour or so of the film is chaotic in ways intentional—to mimic confusion on the ground between the characters—and distracting. Simply put, for a film that’s located almost entirely within one walled-off section of a building and features no movements more complicated than getting to a stairwell and into an office overlooking the warehouse, Free Fire is weirdly spatially incoherent. Perhaps there are too many close-ups and short-to-mid-range shots to effectively establish a feeling of space. There’s no sense of where anyone is scuttling off to; they all just seem to be going in random directions.
This is partially an editing issue and also partially the fault of director Ben Wheatley, who does not really give us the lay of the land before things get out of control. Compared to, say, Don’t Breathe—a horror film about teens trying to escape from a blind man’s house, the gimmick of which was that much of it took place sans lighting and which director Fede Alvarez helped sell to the audience by taking the camera through the home floor-by-floor, detailing its layout before the action began—Free Fire does an extremely poor job of making the audience feel at home within its confined space.
On top of that, and perhaps more annoyingly, Free Fire just isn’t very funny. It’s been sold as a slapstick action-comedy filled with zingers and one-liners, but the laughs are few and far between. The lone bright spot is Armie Hammer, who is the rare modern Hollywood star with legit charisma and who, frustratingly, does not seem able to pick a winning project to save his life (The Social Network excluded). The best edits in Free Fire almost uniformly involve cutaways to Hammer’s mug, which is invariably expressing his amused exasperation with the predicament he’s found himself in.
On the bright side, Free Fire doesn’t outstay its welcome, clocking in at just 90 minutes. So, you know, if you’re in the mood for a chaotically edited picture that isn’t particularly funny and only features one winning performance but also happens to be short, then maybe Free Fire is the movie for you. Otherwise, skip it.