Free Fire immediately telegraphs the kind of movie it wants to be. The actors are clad in cheesy seventies garb, complete with questionable facial hair, and they speak like malnourished extras from a Tarantino knockoff. Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote and directed the film, never aspires above the pulpy roots of a sardonic crime thriller. The film unfolds in real time, more or less, following a gun deal gone bad to its bloody conclusion. This is enough material for half an hour, maybe, except Wheatley never bothers with pesky elements like character, suspense, or special coherence. Free Fire devolves into an aimless rat-a-tat of gunfire, figuratively and literally.
The gun deal is between two unhappy parties. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) wants to offload some automatic rifles to Chris (Cillian Murphy), an IRA lieutenant who will bring the weapons back to his homeland. They meet in an abandoned warehouse near Boston harbor. Vernon and Chris both have their functionaries, who are more ill-tempered than competent, so the negotiators Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) help maintain a veneer of civility. It all goes swimmingly, at least until two guys from opposing sides realize they have a beef from the night before. No one wants to start shooting, at least not right away, but all bets are off one the first shot is fired.
Instead of a hail of gunfire, Free Fire has a persistent staccato. Everyone is constantly shooting, more or less, just never with much ferocity. There is widespread confusion: no one knows whose side they are on, nor do they quite know where the shots are coming from. Wheatley shoots this in a highly subjective way, with more POV shots than establishing shots, so the action is little more than character micro-vignettes with everyone having a prop gun. In one of the more implausible developments, literally everyone gets shot immediately, but they are all flesh wounds. Free Fire is just over ninety minutes long, and over half of it involves characters writhing in pain, jockeying for a slightly better sight line over their enemy.
Protracted, lazy gunfights are not necessarily terrible, as long as there is narrative to string them together. On this level, Free Fire also falls short. Some of the characters are less than one dimensional. They have no purpose, except to scream and drop the occasional f-bomb. Copley continues to be typecast as an asshole with a motor mouth, while Murphy – easily the most recognizable actor in the film – disappears into a mirthless role. The only real standout is Armie Hammer, a naturally charismatic actor who seriously cannot catch a break. If I may digress, Hammer’s filmography is one lost opportunity after another. This guy could become a star, another Internet Boyfriend for everyone like Oscar Isaac, and yet he finds roles that do not match his considerable talents. The buzz for the upcoming Call Me by Your Name is any indication, Hammer may move beyond middling genre fare shortly.
Armie Hammer’s bizarre career is infinitely more interesting – and more fun to think about – than Free Fire. As I was watching, a strange feeling washed over me. I was intrigued by the promise of gun fights, and talented actors letting loose in a film that does not take itself seriously. Soon enough, I felt like the citizens of Springfield when they tried to watch a soccer match: the excitement gave way to boredom, which then gave way to mild annoyance, and that gave way to outright hostility. I asked myself, “Why are they still shooting? Shouldn’t someone have died by now? Who the hell does Ben Wheatley think he is? Is he trying to insult me with this movie?” If Free Fire is meant as to be a shaggy dog story, then Wheatley is the only who is remotely amused, and that is no way to make a movie. When the end finally arrives, after interminable gunfire and uninspired editing, it arouses about as much excitement as a fart in an elevator.