With a top-shelf cast, Martin Scorsese as a producer, and U.S. distribution from A24 (Moonlight, The Room), Free Fire is UK director Ben Wheatley's most high-profile film yet. Like his idiosyncratic earlier work, it was made in collaboration with screenwriter and editor Amy Jump, his wife. But fans of the hilarious Sightseers or the enigmatic, terrifying Kill List may be disappointed by what sometimes resembles a nineties-Tarantino knockoff.
Set in a single Boston warehouse in the late seventies, Free Fire zeroes in on an international arms deal as petty grievances and macho stupidity turn it into a bloodbath. The minimal setup promises a tense, funny countdown to total mayhem, and for the first twenty minutes, the quirky mix of characters—a dandified arms dealer from Rhodesia (now South Africa), a couple of IRA soldiers, and their American intermediaries—prove to be amusing foils. Armie Hammer delivers an unexpectedly jaunty comic turn as the middleman whose arch nihilism allows him to tease both buyer and seller like an older brother.
The problems ramp up along with the action. Built on Looney Tunes-style pratfalls and a steady accumulation of minor injuries, the juxtaposition of slapstick and visceral carnage has potential, but it's squandered on by-the-numbers choreography and disorienting camerawork. The plot stalls out early and the few plot twists are telegraphed. The introduction of a third party to the shootout leads nowhere, and the comedy itself gets stale quickly. Sharlto Copley, as the lead gunrunner, and Cillian Murphy, as the point man for the IRA, aren't given much to do beyond self-parody, and Brie Larson, as the mature "straight woman," ends up harnessed to standard genre tropes. Even if you're tickled by the idea of incompetent assholes shooting one another's legs and then crawling around hollering insults, it gets old in the absence of any real surprises.
It doesn't help that Tarantino himself just made The Hateful Eight, a vastly more ambitious film that shares Free Fire's seventies-exploitation-cinema roots and its core idea: bad guys get stuck together and resolve their differences with violence.
The premise suggests a connection between these childish, transatlantic Anglo-American criminals and contemporary geopolitics, but it's only a suggestion. More often, the campy retro aesthetic just seems like a tired affectation. There are hints that Wheatley knows this: "Annie's Song" recurs as an incongruous leitmotif, the promise of a John Denver joke continually deferred. It's as if to say, "This reference feels ironic—do you actually need more reason to laugh?" Maybe you do, maybe you don't. But I hope Wheatley's next project is a better match for his talents.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stumble in the Jungle."