FREE FIRE * 1 / 2
Starring Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor. Screenplay by Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley. Directed by Ben Wheatley.
The best time I had at Sundance this year was at their 25th Anniversary Screening of Reservoir Dogs. I know it probably sounds ridiculous to even consider spending your scarce free time at one of the country’s foremost film festivals re-watching a movie you’d committed to memory back in eleventh grade, but this was a beautiful 35mm print on one of the biggest screens I’ve ever seen with a boisterous crowd rocking the house.
It had also been an awfully long time since I’d last seen Reservoir Dogs, and goddamn that’s still a really great fucking movie. I guess I needed to watch it again.
See, I worked at a video store back in the mid-1990s, when every Tuesday brought a truckload locust-swarm of crummy knockoffs by smart-ass young filmmakers attempting to mimic Tarantino’s swaggeringly profane bloodshed and bravado, except without any of the formal intelligence or soul. (I’d say you should try reading some of the garbage, derivative screenplays I myself wrote back then, but luckily they’re all on floppy disks in a landfill somewhere.) The razor-sharp genius of Dogs eventually became sullied in my mind by these scores of sorry imitators. It’s not an era of genre filmmaking for which I am particularly nostalgic.
Director Ben Wheatley seems to be though, and in so the tradition of Thursday, Keys To Tulsa, Feeling Minnesota and Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead comes Free Fire, an exhausting, gimmicky shoot-em-up almost as inconsequentially glib as it is tiresomely pleased with itself.
Set in 1978 so the characters can wear tacky, dated fashions that score cheap laughs from the groundlings, the movie stars human sandpaper Sharlto Copley as a bizarrely-accented arms dealer trying to unload some bum guns on Cillian Murphy’s sweet-talking IRA charmer. Armie Hammer and Brie Larson are also on hand as the deal’s dapper facilitators, as are at least a dozen too many other characters hanging around to serve as cannon fodder when the shooting starts.
A scuffle breaks out amongst anonymous henchmen over a barroom faux pas, and suddenly the whole stinking rendezvous erupts into gunfire. Our principals are all struck lame and bloody, left to cower for cover and try crawling towards safety throughout a half-demolished old umbrella factory for an awfully, awfully long eighty-five minutes. Free Fire is a lot of people we don’t like skulking in pain around an ugly location while getting shot at from every direction and swearing badly.
I know this is all supposed to be a great big joke, with the for-yuks leisure suits, phony facial hair and quote-unquote ironic use of John Denver on the soundtrack. But as far as jokes go it’s just not a very good one. The cast looks like they’re all playing dress-up, copping attitudes instead of playing characters and trying in vain to make the outré profanity sound as if it wasn’t written by a seventh-grader. The Max Fischer Players came to mind more than once, as did The Boondock Saints, along with every other crummy genre exercise that made me stop renting movies with pistols prominently featured on the video box during the Clinton administration.
Whenever you think of Reservoir Dogs you probably think of dudes bleeding out in a warehouse. But watch the movie again and you might be surprised by how often we leave that location, each flashback offering new information that recontextualizes everything you’ve just watched, complicating both the story and your allegiances.
Free Fire never goes anywhere, and it’s the opposite of complicated. Everyone is exactly who they seem to be and boringly so. I can’t imagine viewers having any allegiances at all here, it’s just one smarmy asshole after another, crawling around shooting at each other under aesthetically unpleasant circumstances. Wheatley’s not even clever enough to change-up the fucking John Denver songs.