I’ve long-championed Ben Wheatley. Kill List was easily the scariest film I saw that year and his darkly funny Sightseers was the main (only) reason I wanted to visit the Keswick pencil museum.
While High Rise didn’t quite live up to expectations last year – it was an ambitious but messy affair – it showed a director willing to broaden his horizons.
Free Fire marks Wheatley’s rise into the (almost) mainstream. He’s moved away from his English roots and filled his cast with A-list Hollywood talent – Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, to name but three. It’s a shame then that it turns out to be his weakest film yet.
Set entirely in a 1970’s American warehouse, the ‘plot’sees an arms deal take place between disparate groups of criminals. Predictably, things quickly go south and a shoot-out ensues.
Wheatley’s garnered a talented ensemble cast for the showdown, but baring an entertaining turn from Sharlto Copley, they are almost criminally underused.
His previous films have been known for creating complex, dark, characters who still manage to tug at your sympathies. Here, they never seem more than stock character traits – there’s the violent Irish one, the druggie one, the cool American one and the female one.
Brie Larson’s character is especially egregious. The Oscar-winner’s role is drawn so thinly it’s easy to forget she’s actually there at all. ‘I’m in it for myself’ she says at one point. And that’s all we get. There aren’t even late third act wrinkles to flesh her out.
Sharlto’s Copley’s gobby, faux-peacock is the only character who rises above the morass and his performance is enjoyable, if broad.
As for the action itself, it feels like a long 90 minutes. The opening 15 minutes successfully create some tension and even when fighting does initially break out, it’s relatively fun as the participants try to gain an early advantage. Unfortunately, nothing much happens after that. For the next hour it’s bang-bang-shouting-bang-witty retort-bang-bang. Repeat until fade.
Wheatley seems to have too much confidence that the dialogue alone will see him through large sections of static action, but he’s no Tarantino. While the bantering is sporadically funny, the brush strokes are too broad; he’s at his best with dry wit and the type of subtlety.
The film lags painfully into the final stretch. There’s an attempt to inject some movement into proceedings, but it doesn’t really change the dynamic. Indeed, the cinematography becomes muddy and it’s often unclear who’s doing what to who.
A more effective third act might have rescued the film – something, perhaps, which took it out of it’s warehouse environs – but instead it drags itself slowly, on it’s belly, to an unsatisfyingly bland end.