“Free Fire,” the latest cinematic gut-punch from Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”), gets off to a retrotastic start, with a high-energy credits sequence composed of a fat ’70s-era font and a punchy track from the Boston punk band the Real Kids. Just when the words “Martin Scorsese” begin to form in the viewer’s mind, up pops his name as an executive producer.
Soon enough, though, Quentin Tarantino nudges the master aside as Wheatley’s chief influence in a film that turns out to be little more than a clever stunt, a one-room bullet ballet that plays like “The Hateful Eight.” A real-time exercise in witty dialogue, cartoonish violence and aim just bad enough to leave its protagonists bloodied but alive through most of its swift duration, “Free Fire” feels like a left-handed project from a filmmaker whose gifts for staging, framing and pacing are on full display but feel ultimately wasted in a glib, down-and-dirty bagatelle.
As the film opens, Chris and Frank, IRA gunrunners played by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, respectively, are sitting in a car with a go-between named Justine (Brie Larson), waiting for Ord (Armie Hammer), a frontman for a South African arms dealer named Vern (Sharlto Copley). Decked out in a suave turtleneck and heaps of facial hair that make him look like an extra from “Anchorman,” Hammer’s Ord dazzles the group with blasé, erudite commentary as he takes them to an abandoned warehouse where the deal is supposed to go down.
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Each side of the transaction has brought along some extra muscle — in Chris and Frank’s case, a strung-out junkie named Stevo (Sam Riley) and his best friend, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). For his part, Vern has an imposing factotum named Martin (Babou Ceesay), as well as two more confederates who conveniently bring the assembled ensemble of ne’er-do-wells to an even 10.
As absurd as it seems to invoke Agatha Christie to describe a movie propelled by searing profanity, graphic savagery and general depravity, “Free Fire” owes much of its parlor-game suspense to her cozily murder-minded mysteries. Once the gunfire inevitably commences — joined at other points by punches, a tickling, a squishy decapitation and one or two incendiary events — the movie becomes a then-there-were-two countdown.
Co-written by Wheatley with his wife, Amy Jump, “Free Fire” is full of stinging verbal parries and thrusts (at one point someone asks Ord to distract another character with his “badinage”), but eventually the dialogue gives way simply to the sound of bullets flying with deranged desperation. It’s no surprise when one of the characters admits that he has forgotten what side he’s on.
That could also be said of the viewers, who, as “Free Fire” becomes more monotonously depraved, may find themselves caring less and less about who lives and who dies. With his cultivated air of nonchalance, the trivialized, consequence-free violence and reverse-engineering of a plot threaded with convenient twists and unexpected arrivals, Wheatley seems intent upon lowering the stakes at every opportunity.
Admittedly, “Free Fire” is graced by some terrific performances, particularly Riley as a rabbity, flop-sweating drug addict, and the reliably self-possessed Larson, who finds herself in the second movie this year to feature a needle drop of John Fogerty singing “Run Through the Jungle.” It’s her character who sees through the posturing, the overcompensation and macho social codes of this chamber piece of blunt-force stupidity and survival to utter a throwaway line that could easily sum up the entire movie: “Ugh, men.”
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Cillian Murphy
Rated: R (strong violence, pervasive strong language, sexual references, drug use)
Running time: 90 min.