Free Fire, the latest feature “experiment” in testing and playing with the fundamentals of narrative storytelling, from Ben Wheatley (High Rise), shares more in common with slapstick and screwball humor of the bygone silent and Great Depression eras than standard Tarantino esque action flare. Comparisons have and will continue to be made to Reservoir Dogs – mostly for the gun fights and single setting scenario – but that film, honestly, couldn’t be farther away on the genre spectrum. The Tarantino style lends more towards performance and high tension, whereas Wheatley – at least in Free Fire – is more caught up in the general structural flow / rhythm and in the patience of the audience. Those looking for John Wick will be sadly and sorely disappointed; this gunplay is both a clever ode to senseless pratfalls and an exercise in toying with plot mechanics.
“Free Fire could and should be labeled as an acid shoot em up…”
It’s a simple enough story: Presumably set in the ‘70s (based on clothing, hairstyle and John Denver), one group of militant Irishmen look to buy guns from a foreign runner at an abandoned warehouse. One slip up leads to another, and everyone is shooting at each other. What follows is an hour or so long escapade of bullet wounds, crawling amongst dirty needles and futile strategizing to make a futile escape to survive into futility. Everything about this is funny and silly, with characters armed and confused, their yells of swear words echoing off the walls much like a ricochet, with no tangible goal or thrust to move things along. Make no mistake about it, as this movie cares little about the tale at hand, so much so that any effort to progress itself is shot in the head or blown up.
And that is what makes it stand out. That is what makes it wonderful.
The trailer for Free Fire pitched me a whodunit tale of errors and survival, where a mystery will unfold over the course of the shootings. This, much like the characters attempts to “win” the battle, was a most pointless marketing endeavor, and kind of backhanded too, for moviegoers at least. Trickery at the previews is understood but looked at with grossly angry eyes. If there is such a thing, Free Fire could and should be labeled as an acid shoot em up, standing as an awfully liquid type movie, by which I mean loose, slippery and a little high.
“Played for laughs with lowbrow gags done up in highbrow manner, Free Fire couldn’t be recommended more.”
Arcs and acts here are so unimportant and, if they exist, well hidden if woven into the fabric. This is an example of what I call Adult Swim Filmmaking, where standard conventions are creatively and cleverly changed or disposed of, in favor of something weirder, but comfortably real feeling. Swiss Army Man, Uncle Kent II and the recent Sylvio certainly fall under that, with Free Fire now included for its bold approach to remixing genres, to eschewing screenplay basics and to just letting things unfold into chaos for the majority of duration.
Not regressive or transgressive (though others may feel differently), Free Fire is most aggressively progressive in its handling (or non handling) of a story with no central thrust other than to not get killed. Making it out of the warehouse? These men are so petty and mad that they feel more like “winning” and being the last one standing than just arguing for a way to conclude the ordeal properly. A misunderstanding and hormone driven decision leads to issues of male pride, territorialism and protecting of one’s own machismo. While certainly not technically about anything on the ground level other than people bickering with guns, the case could be made that this is more about male ego as it relates to war and diplomacy. I leave that conversation, however, for another time.
With a sound design comparable to the best 3D audio virtual reality experiences, I felt like I was enveloped fully into the fight. What were we fighting for? *Shrugs* Isn’t that usually forgotten in the fog of gunsmoke? Played for laughs with lowbrow gags done up in highbrow manner, Free Fire couldn’t be recommended more. A violent romp, a mishmash of tropes and personalities, an example of what can be done when a director sits back and focuses more on the aftermath of an inciting incident than worrying about chapters or resolutions. Give Wheatley a Jerry Bruckheimer project, and he’ll kill it in more ways than one. And for good.
Free Fire (2017): Director: Ben Wheatley / Writers: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley / Stars: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Jack Reynor
5 out of 5