The disappointing “Free Fire” feels like one of those movies that was conceptualized over a 3 a.m. cup of coffee in a booth at a late night diner. “Let’s make a 70s era throwback movie that ends in an hour-long bloody shootout set to a classic John Denver song!” It’s a five minute idea that’s stretched into a 90 minute “Reservoir Dogs” rip off. The overly simplistic screenplay and clunky direction from Ben Wheatley make this film quite the yawner.
The film is set in the 1970s for no reason whatsoever, and the period costumes and hairstyles are second rate at best. The loose story centers around a gun deal gone horribly wrong. The film begins with a fun introduction to the group of characters (including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, and Jack Reynor), but the background setups are all too brief and pointless, as the film quickly becomes nothing more than a loud, bloodstained, and overly long shootout in a decrepit warehouse. There are a few early glimmers of greatness from Hammer and Riley, but Larson and Reynor are completely wasted. There’s a lot of shooting and yelling and a lot of bloody injuries, but all of it lacks substance to the point where after a while, it’s not even enjoyable anymore.
The story starts off kind of great, but it quickly becomes clear that the film lacks any kind of depth. All of the action takes place in one warehouse, and if you’re going to have the balls to set a movie in a limited, confined setting, you’d better be ready to — pardon the pun — bring the big guns. Wheatley does bring some heavy ammunition, but his film fails to measure up as either an action tour de force, genre thriller, or a commentary on gun culture.
Even if you aren’t a fanboy of the monster movie genre, you’ll have a good time at “Kong: Skull Island,” an eye popping popcorn movie that offers up some good old fashioned cinematic escapism. The film has a serious-yet-satirical attitude that gives it an elevated B-movie vibe, and it’s a ton of fun.
Setting the film in the 1970s was a brilliant move and it serves the story well. Conspiracy theorist Bill (John Goodman) convinces the government to give him a military escort to chart a mysterious island. Accompanying him are tough and combative career military man Lt. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, British tracker James (Tom Hiddleston), anti-war photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and several other random company suits and scientists. After arriving on the island the group encounters wildly strange hermit Hank (the scene stealing John C. Reilly), a presumed dead WWII military pilot who crash landed and has been stuck on the island since the 1940s. King Kong is a hero ape in this version, keeping the local tribespeople safe from the Skull Crawlers (which are admittedly lame and fake looking dino lizard things).
The plot is thin, the dialogue is at times clunky, and there’s little character development. But that’s not really why audiences flock to movies like this, is it? We’re here to see a giant monkey wreak havoc, and the film delivers. (In fact, Kong shows up within the film’s first few minutes, providing an instant satisfaction by giving us an early and grandiose glimpse of the beast).
This is one great looking movie that’s extraordinarily visually focused (if not so much story-wise). It’s an expensive spectacle with a huge budget (rumored to be in the $190 million range), and you sure as heck can see where the money was spent onscreen. It’s not in the talented, credible actors that helm the cast: it’s in the absolutely flawless — and I mean FLAWLESS — visual effects. The CGI eye candy is breathtaking and the classic movie monster is brought to life on an epic scale by the animation geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic (with visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum working at the top of his game here). Kong looks and feels like an actual ape and is given a real humanity through the topnotch animation.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed the intimate film “Kings of Summer” (which clocked in at #4 on my list of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2013), makes an enormous and impressive creative leap from spearheading a low budget indie to an extravagant blockbuster with enviable ease. Vogt-Roberts has a skilled, artistic eye for visual beauty and stages some epic set pieces here. You’ll get big monsters and even bigger explosions with a pulsating retro rock soundtrack throughout.
All of this dazzling spectacle serves as a flashy distraction from the thin story and flat acting, but this is a wildly entertaining movie that breathes life into the Kong franchise.