Freelance is a rarity in how dead it appears on arrival. Director Pierre Morel is a shell of the filmmaker who made action romps Taken and Peppermint; this lifeless action rom-ish-com fails every genre in its multi-hyphenate description. Writer Jacob Lentz’s thoughtless feature debut screenplay is a shambles of contradictory dialogue and forgotten plotlines whose thematic fumbles are fit for an ESPN Not Top 10 reel. At no point does anyone in front of or behind the camera seem to understand the movie they’re making. It’s a mess from start to finish, but not the fun type of disaster where bad turns to worse with entertaining discombobulation.
John Cena stars as ex-special forces operative Mason Pettits. He’s injured in combat, becomes a numb-to-the-world lawyer, and then attempts to relocate his sense of purpose by accepting a private-security contract. Cena narrates an ugly first-person introduction in which Pettits dishes out military propaganda that explains why he enlisted instead of pursuing the wife-kids-and-white-picket-fence lifestyle. Are we supposed to laugh at how much he loathes the thought of living in the suburbs, like a “joke” about how he’d get bored and end up having an affair with his hot neighbor? It’s never clear because Freelance’s Dust Bowl-dry sense of humor isn’t witty enough to be sardonic nor obvious enough to be slapstick.
It’s an awful introduction to a movie with limp convictions that starts with an unhappy veteran’s decision to chase mercenary work motivated by a pending divorce. Poor Alice Eve plays Pettits’ wife, who presents like a glitchy, AI-generated Lifetime Original Movie character who in a single conversation declares she’s “done” with her husband and suggests he should leave, then gets furious when he says he took a job overseas and will leave, then forgets all that and angrily tells him they’re dangerously close to over again. This carelessness is par for the course in Lentz’s amnesiac screenplay, which only worsens with the introduction of discouraged celebrity gossip journalist Claire Wellington (Alison Brie). Pettits is employed to provide protection services on Wellington’s trip to Paldonia, a war-torn, geographically ambiguous nation where she’ll interview a divisive dictator, President Juan Venegas (Juan Pablo Raba).
There’s a bounty of drama in Freelance that we should care about. For one, Pettits blames Venegas for an incident from a previous tour of duty, when Paldonian missiles shot down his transport chopper, killed half his squadron, and left him with chronic back issues. Christian Slater plays Pettits’ closest comrade from his special forces days and new boss – and he’s suspiciously the one who sends Pettits on a mission involving Venegas. The seeds of betrayal are planted, but Lentz doesn’t seem to have the attention span to see storytelling dynamics blossom into exceptional conclusions. Over and over, setups deflate upon payoff or are lazily discarded, like the devastating spinal damage that makes an opening fight scene painfully difficult for Pettits to complete – it’s forgotten by the third act, in which Pettits is as agile as a gymnast (or, you know, a professional wrestler) with no physical repercussions.
Freelance is an eyesore of GoPro-style cinematography, horrendous digital effects, and uninspired action. There’s no moviemaking magic: stunt doubles hardly hide their identities, green-screened backgrounds come across like foliage-patterned shower curtains hung behind actors on horseback, and sets look like plywood replicas an inch away from exposing the sound stage beyond their borders. The visual composition of Freelance is unacceptably flat, with as much flavor as a mayonnaise glob between stale Wonder Bread slices. You can see all the seams as RPGs fire missiles on wires or pixelated helicopters crash into lush Paldonian jungle floors, as if post-production departments crammed all their assignments into the night before they were due.
The only chuckles come from Cena and Raba forcing their charms through abysmally written character – Cena the Adonis action hero prototype, and Raba the (supposed) eccentric tyrant with a heart (and revolver) of gold. Cena and Brie have less sexual chemistry than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Hobbs & Shaw, rendering any will-they/won’t-they as impotent as the majority of Freelance’s performances. Lentz and Morel are terrible when sustaining long-form storytelling, and Pettits, Venegas, and Wellington learn nothing because Freelance doesn’t teach lessons, it just reads the answers aloud. Depictions of corporate disgust, anarchistic coups, and senseless killing are lifelessly plastic, using the hardships that plague underdeveloped nations as a “zany” backdrop for a shoot-’em-up gone putrid.
Freelance is non-stop frustration, repeating dud after dud as it tries to figure out what type of movie it is in real time. Is it the self-serious international political commentary about greedy capitalist regimes? The buddy comedy about an expert soldier and gunslinging leader who establish a brotherhood despite their differences? The romantic back-and-forth where a journalist and bodyguard find their purposes (or temptations) entwined? Nothing suggests that either Morel or Lentz know themselves, as made evident by the litany of follies that make it into the final cut.