When I heard that Ben Wheatley had made a film comprised almost entirely of a gunfight, I was both intrigued and suspicious. Would it be a straightforward punt at the mainstream or a stranger, more transgressive trip; well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane? After all, the shootout on film is nearly as old as the medium itself, and has been both the catalyst for some of cinema’s most electric, innovative sequences… and it’s most shamelessly commercial drivel. Sam Peckinpah once said, “I’m a student of violence because I’m a student of the human heart”. He also said, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody came to see it”.
It turns out that Free Fire – a retro, crime-movie pastiche, executive produced by Martin Scorsese – doubles down on the latter statement, ensuring that everybody in the film gets shot, as many times as possible. The deliberately skeletal plot concerns an arms deal, brokered between a rag-tag bunch of gangsters and dimwits, which goes bad within the opening fifteen minutes… ushering in 75 minutes of total, unbroken, mayhem.
If that sounds like a barrel of laughs – it’s not. What transpires is a muddled, incoherent syncopation of misfire, backfire and people on fire. The fact that all semblance of plot and character are loaded into an AR-70 assault rifle and sprayed merrily into oblivion, so early on, wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it was executed (no pun intended) with a bit more panache. For a film with such a simple, central purpose, Free Fire lacks focus – the rapid editing and jarring sound design making for a confusing, rather than exhilarating viewing experience.
The film takes place largely in one location: an abandoned warehouse. That it also takes place in 1970, was apparently a decision taken to eliminate the temptation for characters to use mobile phones – and presumably to allow for some sweet vintage moustaches and racy shoulder pads. However, as the film proceeds these feel increasingly like arbitrary decisions that aren’t employed to any particularly interesting, exciting or humorous ends. Cillian Murphy, additionally, plays an IRA operative, seemingly just because he is genuinely Irish. There is the briefest suggestion, later in the film, of a broader context to the bungled arms deal, but it feels aimlessly tacked-on, as if the actors are making it up as they go along.
Perhaps this is partly the point, in keeping with the film’s anarchic staging. But it’s a fine line to tread, and one that Wheatley, and screenwriter Amy Jump don’t quite get right. Similarly, the dialogue, which takes it’s cue from the kind of macho ironising found in Scorsese’s own Wolf of Wall St, consistently misses the mark: monotonous exchanges of unimaginative insults landing, one after the other, like a wet kipper across the face.
To give it its dues, Free Fire doesn’t try to be a balletic action film in the vein of Hard Boiled, nor does it reach for the grizzled poetics of films like The Wild Bunch. It is almost an anti-action film, a lairy affair, closer in spirit to Reservoir Dogs in it’s comic depiction of mangled masculinity and boyish fascination with the iconography of violence. But, whereas Tarantino’s film lingers in the memory for it’s radical attention to self-reflexive dialogue and economy of action, Free Fire lurches tediously in the other direction – destined to be little more than a footnote in the career of an otherwise singular filmmaking talent.
Free Fire is out on general release in the UK on Friday 31st March.