A location-contained action film, Free Fire charts a weapons sale gone wrong when a petty personal issue between henchmen of both buyer and seller set off a firefight that rages through an abandoned factory. Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley uses the derelict concrete and metal that fill the facility to set up a few clever ricochet shots, adding to the pandemonium of a group of well-armed individuals firing blindly at one another in a conflict that doesn’t so much escalate as immediately scale a cliff.
With no variation in intensity, the film quickly explores the limits of its physical space, leaving no opportunity for unexpected detours or twists to keep the plot lively. The closest it gets is the introduction of a third party of would-be robbers who intrude on the melee and take shots at both sides, but this development is telegraphed well in advance and is largely resolved within minutes, allowing the original sides to return to their squabble.
Eventually, everyone gets so stressed that members of the same group turn on each other, which opens up the potential for reconfigurations of alliances. Sadly, these moments are buried under the scenery-chewing performances, most especially by Sharlto Copley, who hams it up as a craven trader who regularly spoils for a fight, but immediately shrinks when he gets one.
Suggesting a feature-length adaptation of Reservoir Dogs‘s finale, Free Fire is like so many mid-‘90s Tarantino knockoffs, all self-consciously witty dialogue meant to paper over gratuitous violence with a veneer of nonchalance and a gimmicky setup. Witness, for example, the gun dealer played by Armie Hammer and how he pauses the shooting to conduct a sarcastic roll call in order to figure out who’s still active in the fight. And the decision to set the film in the 1970s adds no meaningful context to the film outside of fashion choices and the ability to meaninglessly make Chris (Cillian Murphy), the closest thing to a traditional hero in the film, an IRA representative.
But the most egregious element of the film is Brie Larson’s Justine, a go-between who enjoys relative consideration from all the shooters yet tosses out empty lines of cod self-empowerment like “We can’t all be nice girls.” Regardless of one’s feelings about Wheatley, his films to this point have displayed a clearly idiosyncratic personality. Free Fire, however, is the worst thing a work by so contentious a filmmaker could be: anonymous.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.