Trigger-Happy "Free Fire" Is All Killer, No Filler

One cup Mamet, two cups Tarantino, a healthy splash of The Three Stooges, and voila! British writer-director Ben Wheatley has his “Free Fire,” a sly, occasionally screamingly funny cinematic take on what’s known in television as a bottle episode. Wheatley unfolds his entire $7 million actioner more or less in real time in a single location, following a baker’s dozen of goons through a weapons deal gone awry. But unlike in the filmmaker’s last go-round (“High-Rise”), his stubborn anti-narrative flies instead of fizzles, delivering on its promise of one of the longest and most head-spinning shootouts in movie history.

First, the players: It’s 1978 and mustachioed IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) wait shrouded in the Boston night for hired hoods Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). Together they’ll commence a mid-level gun purchase: A briefcase full of cash for some M16s. With a mediator named Justine (Brie Larson) in tow, the group hooks up with a slickly coiffed arms dealer representative named Ord (Armie Hammer) outside of a warehouse.

Once inside, they meet the rest of the gang. Ord’s associates include Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), two sides of the same neurotic coin, along with volatile gun runner Vernon (the inimitable Sharlto Copley) and his partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). Before long, a personal indiscretion between a member of each faction bubbles to the surface and the first shot is fired. The way these characters descend into violence as naturally as two neighbors might descend into a friendly conversation about lawn care is very funny, and the cast effectively teases out their idiosyncrasies with some tremendous physical acting and a bushel of hilarious exclamations. (Copley’s Vernon is, predictably, the showstopper.)

The film is necessarily an audiovisual tour de force, with Wheatley challenging himself to spin a feature out of close to zero plot. He does it well. The editing and sound design are both top notch, delivering just the right amount of disorientation in keeping with the characters’ ever-shifting playing field. And it’s a good-looking movie, low-budget or not, full up with creative shots and an appealing color palette that’s 70’s without being too 70’s. The brisk running time (85 minutes) doesn’t hurt, either.

Perhaps best of all, Wheatley has made a legitimately fun gun movie that doubles as a savvy indictment of gun culture – one that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to have it both ways. It presents its characters and their reality so naturally as to allow viewers to feel whatever they want towards them and it, all while baking in a wordless critique of the absurdities of the Second Amendment that’s easily accessible to anyone looking for it. As such, “Free Fire” ends up one of the few Tarantino-inspired pictures with an actual point of view (unlike, say, the amoral, unwatchable “Boondock Saints”), and that alone is reason enough for a fist pump or two.

Moviegoers expecting a streamlined actioner might be flummoxed, but Wheatley’s latest has cult classic tattooed on its forehead. Get on board the bandwagon while there’s still room.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 21, 2017
Studio: A24
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenwriter: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use)