The challenge: after having spent ~90 minutes in the company of Ben Wheatley’s cadre of arms dealers, where much of its action occurs within the expanses of an abandoned warehouse, consider mapping out its topography. Consider doing this while watching the film. Transitioning from passive viewer to detailed cartographer isn’t necessarily a requirement. Simply begin with the obvious (a red van parked within the warehouse) and trace where each character starts their journey and where it (brutally, mercifully) ends. My suggestion is that it cannot be done, at least not to any degree of certainty. Characters are persistently on the move, crawling through debris as they agonizingly bleed out, their legs petrified by lead, dragging their carcasses in what so often feels like a circular pattern. Spatial coherence is the least of Ben Wheatley’s concerns in Free Fire. But to a larger point (which, yes, this too should be obvious), this absence of visual coherence serves as an irreconcilable impediment to my enjoyment of the film. I could feel myself biodegrading as Free Fire slogged to its inevitable conclusion. A conclusion that’s so cortex-decaying in its emptiness that it precludes all matter and meaning.
The film centers on an arms deal gone wrong. A series of misunderstandings fractures our buyers (Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, et al.) and sellers (Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, et al.) and the bullets proceed to fly. Everyone is wounded. A third-party joins the shoot-out. They’ve all been double-crossed. More bullets. There’s a functioning telephone in the building so perhaps someone can call for reinforcements. That becomes a whole thing. Every character more or less begins to wither away. One is burned alive. Or rather, singed to death. Another sees their skull crushed. How enviable. A vocal segment of the theater in which I saw the film with responded with the requisite oohs and aahs at such dazzlingly displays of lead lobotomy. Did these people not see John Wick Chapter 2?
So let’s go beyond the formal aesthetic here and consider Wheatley’s bread and butter, his quote unquote subversive humor. Sure, Free Fire is funny. But it’s funny in the sort of self-referential, sardonic, wink-wink sort of way that’s only intensified by the phony posturing of his performers. What you get out of it is a prevailing ironic attitude that’s juvenile in conceit and incoherent in execution. My threshold saw its limits when Sam Riley’s character proceeds to weep over the death of his friend, only to scour the dead man’s pockets for drugs, and proceeds to get in another high while unloading another clip into the thematically impoverished void that is Free Fire. Gosh, this movie is so stupid it practically drools.