Men with Guns: Free Fire

free-fireFree Fire
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Opens April 21

The mechanics are familiar: A bunch of criminals, many outlandishly dressed, eye each other tentatively and menacingly over a deal, in this case for a truckload of guns. There’s a mishap, and everyone grabs a weapon. Briefly, it’s sort of a Mexican stand-off; then it’s more of a shoot-out, and it’s every man (and one woman) for themselves. It all goes down in an abandoned factory, naturally (“whatever it made, no one wants it anymore,” someone notes).

Yet despite the clarity and movie-ness of his set-up, it’s hard to say what, exactly, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is. It’s not precisely an action movie; when gunfire is constant, it starts to feel more like comic punctuation than fuel for excitement. Yet comedies, too, often feature setpieces and forward momentum, and Free Fire doesn’t show a lot of interest in engineering any of that; once the gunfire starts, it barely has scenes, just a series of contentious exchanges where bullets and words zing past each other. The dialogue of the screenplay Wheatley co-wrote with Amy Jump is intermittedly colorful and sometimes hilarious, but some of its laughs come not from the lines but their locations—Wheatley pushes some dialogue offscreen, adding to the sense of cacophony. Despite a variety of accents and Wheatley’s nationality, the American setting disqualifies Free Fire from counting as the kind of gritty British crime thriller satirized by an old SNL trailer as “a lot of killing over a very small amount of money.”

This might sound either like Wheatley is either experimenting again, or giving in to base exploitation instincts without a broader game plan. I don’t think either is the case. But if story of his last movie, the dystopia adaptation High-Rise, felt deliberately obtuse, with crucial actions passing in montage or even offscreen, it’s this movie’s reason for being that feels obtuse, often delightfully so. Maybe it’s a semi-badass boot camp for actors who need to have a little fun for whatever reason. So there’s perpetually glum-looking Cillian Murphy as an IRA man, carving out some time from his gun deal to flirt with recent Oscar winner Brie Larson, who is having a hell of a pulpy spring between this and Kong: Skull Island. And there’s Armie Hammer, whose leading-man career hasn’t quite taken off, as the amusingly droll go-between for Murphy and Larson and their seller. The seller is played by Sharlto Copley, who does not often find a part so well-suited to his manic, flickering-dim-bulb energy, but does here. (Though it’s worth asking: Will Copley ever play a bona fide smart person?)

Copley’s pushy, twitchy dealer starts on a sour note when he shows up with different guns than Murphy’s all-business type has asked for, but it’s an unrelated inter-henchman beef that gets the guns a-firin’. This subplot features Sam Riley as one of the sweatiest low-level criminals since the glory days of Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy in Killing Them Softly, and helps establish a tone of mordant slapstick. This is a movie where just about everyone gets shot, and the fact that everyone gets shot isn’t remotely a spoiler. Some characters are more likable than others, but they’re all cannon fodder in the style of Daffy Duck, minus the bills that spin around in a puff of gunpowder.

Wheatley is so jazzed by his premise, his actors, and their various mustaches that some of the geography of the factory gets a little lost. But maybe that’s the idea. Nothing about Free Fire is narratively elusive—it takes place more or less in real time. Yet it remains mysterious, in its goofball way. It has its fun—and the movie is, in the right who-gives-a-fuck mood, tremendous fun—and then tries to limp away merrily.

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