A black market arms deal goes south in spectacularly bloody fashion in the darkly comedic crime-thriller "Free Fire," the latest from prolific British director Ben Wheatley. The filmmaker's follow-up to his ambitious but flawed dystopian satire "High-Rise," "Free Fire," is an audacious, over-the-top genre exercise that's somewhat scattershot in execution, but it makes for a wildly entertaining ride.
The film is set in 1978 Boston, where Justine (a steely Brie Larson) is brokering a deal between IRA arms buyers Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), who want to purchase a truckload of assault rifles off South African gun runners Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay). Suave gun-for-hire Ord (Armie Hammer) is on hand to play middleman between the groups.
An already precarious situation is exacerbated by a previous beef between the hired muscle for each side, junkie Stevo (Sam Riley) and hot-headed Harry (Jack Reynor). The two got into a scrap the evening prior, and as their disagreement flares back up, all those itchy trigger fingers get to scratching. Things ignite into an all-out battle royale of bullets and gunfire that comprises the entire remainder of the film.
"Free Fire" takes place almost entirely in the single setting of an abandoned warehouse, and the confined location requires some impressively imaginative staging from Wheatley, although at times the exact geography gets a bit confusing. It's sometimes hard to determine exactly who's shooting at whom and who's hiding where. And with the film's zippy run time, there's not much room to develop anyone's personalities before the bullets start flying.
There are a lot of characters to keep track of (I haven't even mentioned the two mysterious snipers who crash the party later on), and over the course of the protracted shootout, it becomes clear that the players all have two main things in common: they've got impossibly short fuses and they're all worthless shots. Their attention is periodically drawn back to the briefcase of cash that's been left unattended in the middle the carnage, but more often it takes a backseat to the simple desire to get out alive.
The pared-down narrative lends things a furious, kinetic energy, but the sheer chaos ends up robbing the film of some necessary tension. Without a single protagonist to latch onto, it's hard to get too invested in the fate of any one character, especially with their constantly shifting allegiances. Early on, Justine gets candid about where her priorities really lie; asked if she's FBI, she quips that she's "IIFM: in it for myself." Once every character starts taking shots at everyone else, we end up just waiting to see who is left standing when the dust settles.
But "Free Fire" isn't lacking in the most important elements: bullets, guns, and 1970's fashions. Wheatley pays direct homage to action movies of that particular era, down to the film's mostly practical effects. There's a bit of Peckinpah and early Tarantino laced with an anarchic absurdity that borders on slapstick. The script by Wheatley -- with his wife and frequent collaborator, Amy Jump -- keeps things relatively light; the one-liners sometimes fly even faster than the bullets.
Cinematographer Laurie Rose fills the frame with rusty oranges and browns, while the music by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury lends the action a 70's rock edge (rounded out with a few period-appropriate songs). Wheatley proves himself much better at utilizing period appropriate needle drops than Jordan Vogt-Roberts in "Kong: Skull Island," another recent 70's-set actioner starring Brie Larson.
"Free Fire" is cartoonish, brutal, noisy, and ultimately a little exhausting. Wheatley's general feelings about guns shine through, and buried under the considerable bloodshed is a slight critique of the excesses of modern gun culture; not for nothing is the film's tagline "All guns. No control." It seems that in the film's world (as in the real one), too often the people who manage to get their hands on these weapons are precisely the ones too stupid to have them in the first place.