The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Free Fire,” click here.
I can’t say I was looking forward to seeing “Free Fire.” On the surface, it had enough going for it — I like the main cast, specifically Brie Larson and Armie Hammer. It’s a comedy, and it’s short, which are two things I like. What worried me actually wasn’t a what — it was a who.
I hated “High-Rise,” “Free Fire” director Ben Wheatley’s last film, to the point where the fact that he had directed two really good episodes of one of my favorite TV shows, “Doctor Who,” was no comfort. The bloviating, self-absorbed “High-Rise” made me think Wheatley might not have what it takes to work on the big screen.
After watching “Free Fire,” I’m ready to admit I was wrong.
The film has a very simple setup: Various underworld people of various levels of intelligence (among them Larson, Hammer and Cillian Murphy) gather in a warehouse for a gun deal. The gun deal goes wrong. Everyone begins shooting at each other. Also, it’s very funny.
Here’s the thing I didn’t like about “High-Rise,” which was a big, stinking pile of metaphor starring Tom Hiddleston: The story was secondary, sacrificed on the altar of style. It was a glossy, slick film — so slick that it left nothing for its audience to grab onto or be invested in.
In “Free Fire,” which Wheatley co-wrote, the director’s style serves the story. The frenetic shootout scenes — which felt like a more chill version of 1998’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” — were nicely balanced with scenes where characters and audiences both could take a breath, reload and maybe make a few quips. The 1970s setting not only gives the film a visual flair (do they make facial hair like they used to? No, they do not) but makes narrative sense; one cellphone and the whole plot falls apart. The minor characters are well-drawn. The major ones are vividly memorable, particularly Hammer’s chic, pot-smoking gun dealer and Larson as the only girl in the clubhouse (if there were an Oscar for outstanding performance of an eye roll, she’d be a shoo-in).
What I liked best about “Free Fire,” though, is that it’s a reminder of a simple fact: Directors can get better. It’s easy to assume that good directors emerge fully formed from the head of Orson Welles, but helming a movie is just like any other job: Work, time and training almost inevitably lead to improvement. I don’t know what Wheatley did in the time between “High-Rise” and “Free Fire,” but whatever it was, it strengthened his weaknesses and honed his strengths.
I walked into “Free Fire” skeptical because of Wheatley. Now, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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