Cult British filmmaker Ben Wheatley’s latest project, Free Fire, brings together a formidable arsenal of big guns, including Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy in key roles, plus Martin Scorsese as executive producer. A regular at TIFF, the director of Kill List and High-Rise is back in Toronto this week to launch this noisy love letter to vintage action movies, which sits comfortably alongside his previous adoring fan boy riffs on folk horror, dark comedy and dystopian science fiction.
Alas, for all its stellar talent, Free Fire is a scattershot exercise in genre homage that ultimately misses the target. The execution may be lively and the ensemble cast impressive, but the basic idea runs out of ammunition midway through. Judged against Wheatley’s past body of work, this latest comic thriller feels insubstantial. Elevation Pictures is handling the film in Toronto, while New York-based indie outfit A24 already has U.S. rights and aims for a 2017 release.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
The pared-down plot is knowingly high-concept, a remix of ‘70s crime thriller tropes that strips away most of the backstory and concentrates instead on an epic gun battle between rival criminal groups, the kind of scene that might occupy a few minutes of screen time at most in a more conventional movie. Wheatley and his screenwriter wife, Amy Jump, make the shoot-out not just central to the plot but pretty much the entire plot.
The vaguely defined setting is a crumbling waterfront warehouse somewhere in late ‘70s Massachusetts, though the main shoot actually took place close to Wheatley’s home base in the English costal town of Brighton. The plot hinges on two politically motivated Irish gunmen, cool-headed Chris (Murphy) and loose-cannon Frank (Michael Smiley), who are seeking to buy a truckload of rifles from flamboyant South African arms dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). Sporting period-perfect Farrah Fawcett feathered waves and a nice deadpan wit, Larson plays Justine, an intermediary for the Irishmen.
Authentically horrible retro facial hair abounds in Free Fire, which gleefully wallows in its lurid disco-era fashions. An extravagantly bearded Armie Hammer appears to be channeling the young Peter Fonda as Ord, a suave stoner working as frontman for the arms dealers. But his sneery attitude puts everyone on edge, almost jeopardizing the deal. The mood is already combustible when a preexisting feud between two minor foot soldiers, junkie Stevo (Sam Riley) and trigger-happy Harry (Jack Reynor), escalates into an exchange of gunfire. Before long, everybody is firing indiscriminately and the warehouse becomes a battleground.
A key pleasure of Free Fire is the wisecracking back-and-forth between characters who aim to wound each other with words as well a bullets, literally adding insult to injury. A key disappointment is when it becomes clear that this is pretty much all the film has to offer. Despite some superbly choreographed pyrotechnics and kinetically nimble camerawork, the action becomes repetitive and confusing once the heavy shooting starts. It also proves increasingly hard to care about these seemingly indestructible combatants, who stubbornly persist in their pointless fight despite being shot a dozen times each.
Wheatley cites Sam Peckinpah as a key inspiration for Free Fire, and the Scorsese connection will inevitably invite parallels. But this stylish carnival of carnage is actually much more like a Quentin Tarantino confection, with its second-hand gangster-movie homages and joyously bloody, consequence-free violence. Indeed, this battle royale-with-cheese shares a strikingly similar tone and setting to Reservoir Dogs. It even has an ironically cheesy ‘70s hit as a recurring motif: “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.
Larson, Murphy and Wheatley will all benefit from their shared association on Free Fire, which confers different kinds of prestige on all three. But nobody is in peak form here. Wheatley’s riotous Looney Tunes action comedy is a sporadically amusing assault on the senses, but it looks like it was more fun to make than to watch.
Production company: Rook Films
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Raynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Noah Taylor, Patrick Bergin
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriters, editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Producer: Andy Starke
Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Reno Antoniades, David Kosse, Sam Lavender, Ben Roberts, Lizzie Francke, Danny Perkins, Dan MacRae
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Music: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: Elevation Pictures (Canada), Protagonist Pictures
Rated R, 90 minutes