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Free Fire is a fun experiment - it's basically just one sequence, and a shoot-out at that - and I was interested on that basis alone. What I could only hope for and not expect was what I got. A rip-roaring dark comedy that quickly got you invested in the characters and then, Fiasco-style, got the dominoes falling after a monumentally bad decision by someone you didn't think was important. Sound design is an important part of the film, letting us hear snatches of conversation off the one side or the other, developing smaller stories in the background and contrasting with action with comedy, in a fight where insults hurt more than bullets. And by giving the characters distinct voices and accents, it avoids confusion. The 70s setting not only helps isolate the one location, phone-wise, but also gives the enterprise the feel of an exploitation flick, which I think had the proper effect on the theater, all belly laughs and even shouted epithets, like I would expect from a rowdy New York crowd. So perhaps the story necessarily has little depth (it's just one scene), but it is detailed and rewatchable, and huge fun.
Ben Wheatly's previous film, High Rise, was a tremendously flawed film; One really only worth noting for its impeccable direction and editing. Free Fire is a similarly flawed experience, though this time for entirely separate reasons.
While High Rise suffered primarily from its underwritten script, Free Fire's writing is actually pretty serviceable, albeit a bit light on substance. The film does a decent job with characterizations before erupting into violence, and even then, there's enough clever banter inbetween the bloodshed to keep things interesting. On paper, Free Fire sounds like a perfect marriage of director and material, as Wheatly has typically always excelled at humor punctuated with violence.
What is surprising however, is that none of the technical prowess that Wheatly displayed in High Rise seems to have carried over to Free Fire, and herein lies the film's most major issue. For a film where its biggest selling point is the fact that it's essentially a feature length shootout, the action is nearly incoherent.
While it would sound like common sense to provide the audience with a view of the action from multiple angles, Wheatly instead chooses to shoot almost solely in terms close up action/reaction shots; It's rare that we ever get to see both the shooter and the intended target in the same frame. He's so frugal with his wide shots, that it's nearly impossible to tell where the characters are in relation to one another. It's this reluctance to establish any sort of space, along with the way the film likes to quickly cut from character to character, that makes it difficult to ever gain any semblance of clarity to the gunplay. What Wheatly is doing here, is in effect, handing us a box of pieces to a puzzle without ever revealing the image we're supposed to reconstruct.
This isn't to say Free Fire is a total misfire; The cast is terrific, (Sharlto Copely and Sam Riley, the standout performances) and the warehouse's art direction is fittingly dingy and dirty; a reflection of the ugly personalities that inhabit it. It's clear that there's some craftsmanship that went into Free Fire, it's just a shame that most of it got cropped out of the frame.
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