The latest from British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, it must be said, is thought-provoking. For 90 minutes, it provoked thoughts like, Hmm, I wonder why this guy's famous, why a studio gave him $10 million to make a movie this stupid, why talented actors wanted to appear in it and what the hell Martin Scorsese was on when he agreed to executive produce.
I suspect Wheatley and his cowriter/wife, Amy Jump, convinced themselves — and Protagonist Pictures — that they had an idea for a new kind of movie, a minimalist crime thriller. Had the pair pulled it off, I might well be congratulating them on their originality instead of castigating them for their idiocy. But they didn't. Not even close.
The idea was simple: Take a time-honored element of the caper film — the shoot-out — and make that the entire movie. How? By giving two unfriendly criminal outfits reason to remain in a confined space together, and then building in a narrative trip wire guaranteed to start trouble.
One outfit is a delegation from the Irish Republican Army, the other a South African gun-running gang. One has brought a briefcase bulging with cash. One has come with crates filled with Beretta AR-70s. The deal's to go down in an abandoned warehouse on the Boston waterfront. What could go wrong?
Before we get to that, introductions. The IRA is represented by Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley and assorted goons not worth going into. The arms dealer is played by Sharlto Copley. He's assisted in some nebulous fashion by Armie Hammer and accompanied by another assortment of goons.
Glaringly out of place in this ode to ultra-violence is Oscar winner Brie Larson. Her character's role is even more nebulous than Hammer's. She's a "go-between." Right. Beautiful, intelligent women place themselves between packs of hardened criminals in creepy old buildings every day. Totally believable.
Much like the fluke that sparks Free Fire's orgy of carnage. A goon from one side recognizes a goon from the other, accuses him of "bottling" someone (I don't even want to know) and begins shooting at him. Now, these goons, let's remember, are at the bottom of each outfit's chain of command. Their badass bosses could easily order them to knock off the nonsense. But, no, like heavily armed and dim-witted dominoes, one malfeasant after another begins shooting, too.
For more than an hour, cover is ducked for. Pillars are crouched behind. The two sides hurl invective at each other, literally adding insult to injury. A goon drives a van loaded with ammo in circles while ironically blasting John Denver's "Annie's Song" from its (let's presume) eight-track cartridge player.
Oh, did I neglect to mention that this moronic and monotonous mayhem is taking place in the 1970s? Not that this adds anything to the story, apart from bad hair and shoulder pads. The period touch is emblematic of the movie's vacuous, random quality.
Characters absorb ludicrous amounts of lead while still managing to walk and talk. This is perhaps the picture's biggest problem. They talk and talk. Yet no one says anything remotely Quentin Tarantino-esque.
And what, after all, is the point of making a blackly comic crime film riddled with '70s references and retro tunes, acted by a colorful ensemble cast, if you're not going to go full Quentin? Without dialogue that dazzles in juxtaposition to the low-life milieu, what's the function of a film like this? Wheatley, it's clear, hasn't a clue. His experiment misfires, and what's truly minimal is any chance that you'll feel differently.