There are too many cooks and virtually no broth in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a crime drama mostly set in a warehouse in Boston circa 1978 that liberally pilfers Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, from the setting and elements of the plot to the use of 1970s musical nuggets and a copycat finale.
Wheatley’s work, thus far, has involved dabbling in various genres. Down Terrace was a gangster film that occasionally felt like a horror movie, Kill List was a crime movie that eventually becomes a horror film, Sightseers was a horror movie that thought it was funny (but wasn’t), High Rise adapted a classic science fiction novel and A Field in England, well, let’s just leave that one as unclassifiable.
But Free Fire wears its influences – or, rather, influence– on its sleeve. The filmmakers are either hoping for an audience who loved Reservoir Dogs and wants to see a film that mimics it or an audience who doesn’t know that Tarantino’s film exits and, therefore, hopes to be mistaken for something original.
To give credit where it’s due: Wheatley has assembled a great cast of supporting actors – Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor, who was charming in last year’s Sing Street. The bad news is that most of them are left to mumble dialogue that is often barely audible.
While Tarantino’s characters pontificated on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” or argue over the colors representing their aliases, Wheatley’s creations merely shout back and forth that they’ve been shot. One character apparently has a great John Denver story, but he is killed before he’s able to tell it.
The film’s setup is – shall we say – minimalist. A group of criminals converge on an abandoned warehouse where a weapons deal is supposed to go down. However, a beef between two characters – Riley’s sleazy Stevo and Reynor’s Harry – sets a series of shootouts into motion. And that’s pretty much it. Much of the rest of the picture involves characters crawling on their bellies across the warehouse’s dirty floor and either firing or receiving bullets.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and screenwriter, Reservoir Dogs could have also been a bust. But what made that film magical was Tarantino’s gift for gab, brilliant direction and the fact that nothing quite like that movie had ever been seen before. Whereas, not only has Free Fire been done before – right down to the location, the semi-ironic use of a 1970s AM radio classic (in this case, Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” which seemingly fails to comment on the action, while “Stuck in the Middle with You” did in Tarantino’s film) and the nobody-gets-out-alive ending – and done much better by others.
Wheatley is talented and has a pretty firm handle on genre. Down Terrace was an unsettling film and Kill List is the type of picture that can blindside you if you go into it with little knowledge of what it’s about. But Free Fire is merely a pastiche and – I’m sorry to say – not a particularly good one.