The specific fantasy that Freelance is tapping into is probably as old as the concept of American masculinity itself. The action comedy, directed by Pierre Morel (Taken), centers on a middling suburban lawyer (John Cena) with a profound and unshakable understanding that this is not what he’s meant for. He’s meant to be a good guy, a hero, a super-jacked soldier who dives headfirst into danger; in fact he was that guy once, until a back injury ended his military career.
Though the film follows Cena’s Mason to South America and back, really its central journey is Mason’s back to the manly man he’s been inside all along. But even the most cherished daydream needs a bit of skill and finessing if it’s to translate to the big screen, and that’s where Freelance falls fatally short — yielding not an uplifting escape, but an enervating bore.
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Plot-wise, the ingredients would all seem to be there. The story begins in earnest when Mason is hired for what promises to be an easy gig guarding a journalist, Claire (Alison Brie), during her interview with the notorious dictator Venegas (Juan Pablo Raba). Within hours of Mason and Claire’s arrival in the (fictional) country of Caldonia, however, they find themselves caught in the crossfire of an attempt on Venegas’ life.
Thus begins Mason’s long battle to make it home in one piece, a pledge he’s made to his semi-estranged wife (Alice Eve, in a role so tiny and thankless it’s downright depressing). The road ahead involves shootouts and car chases, hand grenades and rocket launchers, a light smattering of R-rated blood and a touch of Romancing the Stone-inspired flirtation. Meanwhile, Venegas’ unflappable cheer — endearing to Claire and enraging to Mason — provides comic relief. It should all make for a zippy good time, crackling with humor and intrigue and punctuated with bursts of thrilling action.
But Freelance fails to deliver on every front. Worse, it barely seems to try. Though it’s billed as a comedy, the script (by Jacob Lentz) includes few real jokes — its idea of a hilarious running gag is Venegas repeatedly describing things as “petite” because he’s amused that Mason’s last name is Pettits. Though it purports to be an action movie, it makes no attempt to craft a single memorable set piece. A foot chase moves back and forth across the jungle at moderate speed until even the characters seem bored. A climactic shootout ends not with a bang but with a smash cut to a news report, as if the film itself grew restless and changed the channel.
Despite itself, Freelance occasionally stumbles into glimmers of potential, thanks to its unimpeachably professional lead cast. Mason gets not a single memorable line, but Cena does his level best to elevate even a simple “no” through the sheer precision of his comic timing. His dynamic with Claire turns out more awkward than steamy, but Brie brings a sharpness that suggests she could be marvelous in some other rom-com with a wittier male lead. Raba comes out best of all as Venegas, who’s nothing like the bloodthirsty brute Mason had imagined. While Mason and Claire stress over their predicament, it’s Venegas who keeps his cool, greeting every new perilous development with a playful shrug, a broad smile and occasionally a rousing speech.
As the three of them trudge on (sparking, at times, an accidental ménage à trois chemistry far more interesting than anything that is or isn’t happening between Claire and Mason), Mason’s goal evolves from wanting to escape Caldonia to wanting to save it. Freelance posits that the real villains here are shadowy corporate actors seeking to seize control of Caldonia for their own greedy ends, via mercenaries willing to target anyone for a fat-enough paycheck. But just as soon as the film flirts with difficult truths about the way our country’s forces or companies operate, it retreats instead into the comforting dream of a U.S. military man (well, ex-military) being hailed as a liberator for charging into a war-torn country that he does not understand nearly as well as he thinks he does.
As a wish-fulfillment vehicle, Freelance is naked in its aims. It does not attempt to gussy up its vision in high style, or bury it in layers of comic book metaphor, or shade it with elaborate hand-wringing. But it’s missing the most crucial element of fun. It should be a pleasure to imagine ourselves as Mason, punching our way through faceless baddies (what back injury?), attracting pretty ladies without even trying, winning the respect of our families and the undying gratitude of entire nations. The unfunny, unexciting Freelance makes it a chore. If this is the dream, perhaps we office drones are better off in the reality of those dead-end desk jobs we’d wanted so desperately to ditch.
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