One complaint always thrust upon action films is that they are too reliant on action sequences, with explosions and gun-fights, which often take the place of character development and plot progression. This very idea seemed to be the reasoning behind Free Fire, the latest from the wonderfully talented Ben Wheatley. The approach is that this film is intended to be almost entirely made up of one long action sequence, with character development executed throughout the film, in between gun shots. I would love to be able to say this was a resounding success – for a number of reasons – but unfortunately, while it isn’t terrible, it is somewhat middling in terms of Wheatley’s other work.
Free Fire is set in the 1970s in Boston. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are members of the IRA, who are meeting with arms dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay), who are assisted by intermediaries Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). Along for the ride are Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), who are driving the truck to collect the weapons from the warehouse, as well as Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), who work for Vernon. When an argument breaks out between two of the individuals, the entire operation descends into complete anarchy, with bullets flying for what seemed like the entire 90-minute duration of this film. Each individual wants the briefcase of money – but they need to try and get out of there without being killed first. This film is anything if not audacious, that’s for sure.
What attracted me to Free Fire was the cast, which I think was quite an eclectic group of performers put together in a period dark comedy like this. One such actor is Armie Hammer, who has proven himself to be quite a versatile and talented actor, and someone who is reliably great with almost any kind of material. I think his role as the strangely-named Ord did manage to give him something to do – he honestly has the most interesting character in the film (not saying much), because he is actually developed – yet, it isn’t the script that develops the character, but rather Hammer himself, who seems to constantly be trying to rise above the somewhat middling material. If his performance isn’t mediocre, it is because he is committed to bringing out life in the character which the story doesn’t. Kudos to Hammer for being the only person who gave a great performance in this film.
Brie Larson is also so reliable with nearly every kind of performance, and her award-winning role in Room can attest to her talents. The problem is this – despite being one of the most talented young actresses working today, and someone undertaking a meteoric rise to stardom, Hollywood just doesn’t know what to do with Brie Larson it seems. This is the second film this year (the other being Kong: Skull Island) where is is almost completely under-utilized. She is just there to throw off some shady comments and drive the plot forward, and in both films she serves the purpose of being the only female in a group of males, who suddenly turns out to be far more tenacious and strong-willed than her male counterparts.
Yet, in both films she is thrust to the background and given nearly nothing to do. Larson is fine here – but she certainly doesn’t get to do anything that makes her distinguishable in this film. Honestly, the only reason Larson stands out in this film is because she is the only woman in the group, as sad as it is to say that. It seems like the filmmakers were too preoccupied with using her as a device for the film’s narrative rather than making her vaguely interesting. Unfortunately, it just speaks to the problems with many of these kinds of films – even if Larson is shown to be the most cunning of the characters in this film, and she is ultimately the victor, she is still somewhat objectified, and that isn’t very good. Hopefully she can get better work than these kinds of roles where her talents are not showcased, and she just becomes part of the background.
I sometimes feel that I am a bit too harsh on Sharlto Copley – after all, he is from my home country and he is representing Africa in mainstream cinema. Yet, national pride has to take a backseat to the fact that Copley is a pretty terrible actor. Every performance I’ve seen him give, from District 9 to Maleficent to Hardcore Henry have been brutally awful. In Free Fire, he plays a South African, and I liked the idea – until I saw that the only reason he was playing a South African was to make bad jokes about South Africa that only South Africans would understand – we wouldn’t find them funny, but we get them. I have no idea why Copley had to play this character as a South African, other than perhaps his own annoying insistence that the character has to be South African. Yet, putting my petty gripes aside, Copley just is once again not good. I don’t know what others see him in his acting, but what I see is an actor who just tries too hard – when he attempts to give a loud and showy performance, it is artificial and hammy. When he tries to give a subtle performance, it is fraught with hilariously bad dramatic failures. There just doesn’t seem to be any way out for Copley, other than perhaps he must just try a different avenue of performance, because these kinds of loud, obnoxious characters are not the best showcase for his work. Obviously he has a Hollywood career that is flourishing, I just am lost as to why it is, when all I see is someone who gives often painful performances, even when the film itself isn’t bad.
The rest of the cast ranges from good to mediocre. Jack Reynor wins the award for “Worst American Accent from an Irish Actor” for the year by a long mile. Once again, I have no idea why this character had to be played as American when it was perfectly plausible to have him be played as British or Irish, which actually might have given Reynor something to do other than focus on his pretty awful American accent. The saddest part is that Reynor is American by birth, which just makes his performance here seem like somewhat of a betrayal. Cillian Murphy is good, but unremarkable, as Chris. There really isn’t anything to say about him other than he does what he needs to do – he adds nothing to this film, nor does he take anything. I really can’t even muster up enough thoughts to comment on the rest of the supporting cast, which just shows how bland and forgettable they were.
Here’s the problem with Free Fire (or rather, the first of three big problems) – the character development in this film is non-existent. The first act of Free Fire is dedicated to attempting to create interesting characters. The bits of exposition that precede the gratuitous action sequences in this film try and develop these characters – yet it doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that these characters are really all the same. If their names weren’t repeated so many times, I would probably name them as such – Armie Hammer plays Smart Gun Guy. Sharlto Copley plays Dumb Gun Guy Who Constantly Mentions He is South African. Cillian Murphy plays Irish Gun Guy. Brie Larson plays Lady Gun Guy. Michael Smiley plays Old Gun Guy. Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, Enzo Cilenti and Sam Riley play Young Gun Guys in Various Trucks. There is absolutely no difference in these characters in terms of their motivations or personalities.
These characters are so poorly developed, which can’t even be attributed to the fact that this is an action film, because as low-brow as action films can be, the likes of John McClane, Chev Chelios, Dominic Toretto and other notable action characters are actually developed somehow. It isn’t enough to just throw well-known actors into 1970s-style costumes and give them guns and a few witty one-liners. You need to do a tad more work than that. It just proves my theory that a film can only captivate your attention if it has characters you care about and a story you are actively invested in. I found myself daydreaming while watching this film, and despite the fact there there was a non-stop barrage of gunshots, it bored me to death half of the time. There was no reason to care about a single one of these characters, and ultimately I just wished someone made a run for the briefcase and just left, ending this film where it actually stopped being interesting – after about 20 minutes.
Yet, character development (as vital as it is) is not the only saving grace for a film – sometimes the character development can be dreadful, but the film is still entertaining because the actors have chemistry. I have rarely ever seen an assembling of such an established group of actors who have absolutely no chemistry with each other. It seems like there was no indication towards any of these actors regarding a common tone of this film – some seemed to be playing it like a dark comedy, others like a broad farce, others like a drama. Not only are these characters unlikable individuals, they lack any kind of chemistry that would make the audience interested in them. I am not entirely sure what this film aimed to achieve in creating characters devoid of any realistic personality. How is the audience supposed to be captivated by your story when you have characters that just don’t convey that story properly?
Perhaps the final saving grace of this film was the fact that it was trying to be a throwback, or rather a homage, to 1970s exploitation films, as well as being a tribute to British gangster films. To an extent, it does succeed – it certainly has the look and tone of those kinds of films, and it does have the spirit of the genres. Yet, it doesn’t help that it just doesn’t come close to being as interesting as those films, because there was some element of gritty, low-budget mystique about it – something about watching these big stars just removes that independent cinema illusion from the genre. Thankfully, the cinematography of this film was pretty good and was not a disaster, so at least Free Fire looked authentic.
Free Fire is not a bad film. It is just a painfully mediocre one that never rises above its weaknesses. These are all weaknesses that could have been overcome – they could’ve made these characters a bit more captivating, and done away with a few of the more meaningless characters that were just derivatives of the others. A more compelling execution of a pretty audacious concept would have been far better than the middling result. It is a rare misfire for nearly everyone involved (except for Sharlto Copley, who I really expected nothing less from – he needs to really try and restructure his career). As a whole, Free Fire is a bit of a disappointment in many regards, and I just wish it was a better film.