• 04 Nov - 10 Nov, 2023
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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), centres 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.

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 humour 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.

Freelance 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. 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.