‘Free Fire’ Unfunny, Unpleasant, Unnecessary

Dir. Ben Wheatley (Film4 Productions) – 1 Star

One nice thing about “Free Fire” is that the sound designers probably had a lot of fun putting together the film’s endless cacophony of gunshot noises. There are little gun noises and out-of-bullets gun noises and lots and lots of really big gun noises. In an interview with the New York Times, director Ben Wheatley explained his approach to making these gun noises: “You have to trick the ear into thinking things are louder. In the sound mix, we slowly brought the dialogue sounds down [so the gunshot sounds would seem louder]… The reality of a gunshot is so massively deafening. We wanted it to feel that it was scary and overwhelming.” This technique is effective for maybe the first thirty seconds of continuous gunfire, but after a few minutes (and definitely after a full hour and a half), the nonstop gunshots stop eliciting any emotional reaction and instead begin to blend together into a very violent ambient noise.

In fact, “Free Fire” as a whole is the cinematic equivalent of ambient noise. Despite––or perhaps because of––the constant gunfire, yelling, and gore, the film is painfully monotonous. Blood and bullets abound, but “Free Fire” is utterly devoid of plot, character development, or purpose. It is possible, of course, for unapologetically stupid movies like “Free Fire” to be good, or at least enjoyable to watch. But there is almost nothing about this film that makes it worth seeing.

The premise of “Free Fire” is that two gangs meet in an abandoned warehouse to make an underground arms deal. Hostility rises between gang members, shots are fired, and then shots continue to be fired for the duration of the film. And that’s the whole plot. As part of the aforementioned New York Times interview, Wheatley provided running commentary on a scene from the film, congratulating himself for “creat[ing] an escalating tension” leading up to the shootout. But this tension carries little to no impact; it is difficult to feel invested in a situation completely without context or in characters that are numerous and largely indistinguishable from one another. For a movie with so many casualties, the stakes feel very low.

It’s certainly possible that Wheatley was intentional in his minimalism; perhaps the threadbare plot and one-dimensional characters were constructed so as not to distract from something more important. But what could this “something more important” be? “Free Fire” is marketed as an action-comedy film, but all it has to offer in the comedic department is a few stale quips sprinkled over the ceaseless sound of gunfire. The film could potentially be interpreted as a statement on gun violence or the human propensity to commit atrocities, but this seems unlikely given the lack of emotional resonance attached to each fatality. In fact, most of the injuries and deaths seem to be played––unsuccessfully––for laughs. It’s hard to tell whether certain things are even supposed to be funny. The first time a character is shot, for instance, everything happens in extreme slow motion, and it is unclear whether this is for dramatic or ironic effect.

Brie Larson, who won an Academy Award for her role in “Room,” could be seen as this film’s one redeeming factor, but her undeniable talent is wasted in this mess of a movie. Her acting is good: she says her (terribly written) lines well, and she puts on some excellent you-can-tell-I’ve-won-an-Oscar facial expressions, so her character, Justine, comes closest to feeling at all real or compelling. Still, Larson’s performance isn’t enough to salvage a film this disastrous. Too dull to even hate-watch, “Free Fire” is a movie to avoid.

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