this is why ‘free fire’ misses its mark

Have you ever been to see a film that everyone in the screening seemed to think was really funny and engaging, while you just sat there bemused and thinking: “this is a bit shite”? Well, that’s how I felt watching Ben Wheatley’s divisive sixth feature Free Fire.

As I looked around the audience in hysterics, I thought, “Is it just me? Am I just a stick in the mud?” I may have laughed once or twice, but it occurred to me that if you crack a hundred jokes, at least two of them are bound to be funny.

Free Fire takes place almost entirely inside an abandoned warehouse, telling the story of two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) purchasing guns from a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley). The deal goes south and what ensues is a very loud, over-the-top gunfight, riddled with face value humour and bloody violence. Its impeccable cast do their best with what they’ve been given, but their efforts are in vain. Sadly, the finished product is a forgettable B-movie made to appeal to the masses, leaving no lasting impression.

In order for a film of this ilk, with no sympathetic characters or worthwhile subject matter, to succeed, it has to be backed up by the kind of sharp script that Free Fire lacks. I recount one of the film’s more memorable lines, in which the junkie/lowlife character Stevo (Sam Riley) is asking for aspirin, but is instead offered crack cocaine. His reply – “Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a walnut!” – perfectly sums up the film’s sense of humour and the excessive attempts it makes to be funny, with jokes coming across as painfully obvious when subtlety and sheer wit are all they need.

Despite shooting for the sharp-edged comedy of the classic cult films that it aspires to be (Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction come to mind), it falls flat. Its comedy is designed for a large audience, rather than Wheatley’s usual crowd. I guess that large groups intensify emotion and this film is one of many that will seem a lot funnier watching it in a crowded theatre, rather than at home on DVD.

Gratuitous violence and loud noises are enjoyable for about 15 minutes, but when the entire film is centered around these two characteristics, it becomes tiresome. It’s rare for a 90-minute film to feel as though it’s dragging. It’s tagline – “All guns. No control.” – is a clear comment on the film’s messy narrative structure: All action, no substance. It lacks that spark that makes Tarantino’s similar movies so transporting, managing to be the defining features of the genre.

I imagine that Free Fire will spend a few weeks at the box office and serve as an escape to the masses, but it exists as nothing more than that. Sadly, its predictable premise and forgettable characters will ensure that it will be forgotten; lacking the legacy that has become the hallmark of Wheatley’s otherwise impressive work.

Free Fire had its Scottish Premiere at the 2017 Glasgow Film Festival. It’s released UK-wide on March 31st

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