I don’t always get on much with Ben Wheatley’s films. Though I adore Sightseers, I found both Kill List and A Field in England underwhelming, and High Rise to be a mess, albeit an enjoyable one. Approaching Free Fire, then, I had an open mind but a sense of knowing what I might expect my own response to be, and it was indeed so. While I enjoyed the film well enough, it left me unsatisfied and wanting rather a lot more from it.
Free Fire is quick to establish its main players, and it does so effectively – a deal broker, Justine (Brie Larson) has organised a weapons deal between Irishman Chris (Cillian Murphy) and South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley). They’re assisted by loyal Frank (Michael Smiley) and suave Ord (Armie Hammer), while the muscle-for-hire, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Harry (Jack Reynor), are too hot-headed for their own good, leading to a tense deal heading southward, and what might then be the climax of another crime film becomes the main bulk of Free Fire: a shoot-out between all parties involved, where loyalties are tested as much as the human body’s resilience to bullet wounds.
I think the ultimate disappointment, for me, is just how damn conventional Free Fire ends up being. Yes, there are touches of Wheatley’s trademarks in there, but it’s by far his safest film. Even the opening titles of the film were not quite as in my face as I wanted (though the Rook Films logo was marvellous, but I’m not sure a company logo should be one of the more memorable parts of watching a film). Perhaps my expectations were wrong, but I wasn’t expecting a good 25 minutes establishing the characters and scenario – not that there was anything wrong with these scenes. Indeed, they’re quite effective, but I was approaching the film expecting a quick 10-minute intro and then 80 minutes of bullet hell. Alas, that wasn’t what I got. After establishing his broad roster of characters, the narrative that then plays out between them contains few surprises. In fact, early in the film I thought to myself that I had worked out how it might end, but then told myself that Wheatley would probably throw some spanner into the works. But no, it more or less ended as I imagined it might, which while not a bad ending, was just a bit underwhelming.
The performances are all routinely good, with only Copley and Hammer really standing out, but being given showier roles than others. The dialogue is funny as you might expect, though some moments felt forced. There are nicely subtle references to the gender- and race-politics of the film’s 1970s setting, but I think actually a bit more of that would have made the film more interesting (to me, at least). The action itself is entertaining enough, though some of the shoot-out sequences are shot a bit too frenetically for my taste. Though on the one hand I respect Wheatley for not having more Peckinpah-esque slo-mo in the mix, given his own taste for it, I actually rather missed having a trademark trippy, dreamy sequence in the film – particularly given the 70s setting.
Free Fire certainly makes for a pacy, entertaining 90 minutes, but it didn’t strike me as particularly memorable or impressive. For me, Wheatley’s yet to reach those giddy Sightseers heights again, and I do wonder whether my enjoyment of that film is much more to do with Alice Lowe and Steve Oram’s script and performances than anything else. Free Fire’s worth a watch, but I wanted so much more.