Destined, from the first flash of muzzle, to join the pantheon of immortal dorm-room favorites, Free Fire is a single-location cartoon massacre that could have been put on ice back when knocking off Tarantino was still a growth industry. Ben Wheatley, the British bloodhound who made Kill List and A Field In England, draws battle lines down an abandoned warehouse, where two groups of foul-mouthed, garishly attired criminals gather for an arms deal that goes outrageously awry. Game actors, all dressed to the retro nines, take cover behind planks and debris, sending one-liners and hot lead whizzing in all directions. It’s barely enough to sustain a movie, this orgy of insult and injury; even card-carrying gun nuts may wonder if 90 minutes is too long to spend watching a bunch of morons use each other for human target practice. But if the film has only one note to play, it plays it with a certain slapstick panache, landing closer to Reservoir Dogs than The Boondock Saints on the quality spectrum of movies about loquacious lowlifes with itchy trigger fingers.
Unfolding almost entirely in one building, in something close to real time, Free Fire deposits its motor-mouthed, pistol-packing ensemble into late-’70s Boston—a setting that allows for a few practical storytelling choices (no cellphones!) but mostly just a wealth of ostentatious mustaches, lapels, and almost protectively thick shoulder pads. Two IRA soldiers (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) have come to purchase semi-automatics from a South African gunrunner (Sharlto Copley)—a deal arranged by a connected businesswoman (Brie Larson, wryly crashing this sausage party) and her sharp-witted associate (Armie Hammer). Of course, both sides have brought backup, and it isn’t long before an unforeseen personal rivalry escalates an already tense situation to violence. Too quickly to even allow for a proper Mexican standoff, the deserted warehouse becomes a shooting gallery.
Wheatley, a genre dabbler with a wildly inconsistent track record, does his best to keep the chaos and the sight lines straight. But he’s no John Woo; Free Fire is more like a sloppy game of paintball with live rounds than a carefully orchestrated bullet opera. Still, a little visual confusion is in keeping with the carelessness of these gun-toting lunkheads, who can’t even always remember who’s shot whom. The quips fly as fast as the bullets do, landing with about the same frequency—which is to say, semi-regularly. (This is a movie where characters take a half-dozen gunshots apiece, feel every one, but keep crawling and complaining.) Some of the live-wire energy probably comes courtesy of executive producer Martin Scorsese, one of the living godfathers of chatty crime cinema. Otherwise, credit the uniformly strong cast, with the often-irritating Copley scoring a surprisingly high volume of laughs, a turtlenecked Hammer doing unflappable sarcastic shtick, and an army of shit-talking character actors—Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, a junkie-erratic Sam Riley, and Sing Street’s breakout-star-in-waiting Jack Reynor—generally tapping into the right black-comic spirit.
Free Fire might work as a scathing satire of gun culture, of overgrown children abusing their smoking barrels, if its feature-length shoot-out didn’t seem a half step removed from the consequence-free mayhem of Looney Tunes. Wheatley mostly treats the material like a sandbox—an opportunity to put squirting flesh wounds onto professional actors and to make his own addition to the jukebox-boogie school of crime capers. (The soundtrack includes both an ironic repurposing of “Annie’s Song” and an umpteenth, unironic airing of “Run Through The Jungle,” the latter of which has now appeared in two ’70s-set Brie Larson vehicles this year alone.) But the writer-director’s last film, the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, revealed a heretofore unseen ambition and formal control, suggesting that he was maturing into a more sophisticated purveyor of anarchic carnage. There’s nothing in Free Fire remotely on par with that film’s audience-confounding tactics, like montaging out the entire second act. It’s a noisy backslide—fun, often funny, but about as disposable as an empty clip. We already have a Guy Ritchie. We don’t need another one.