Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley

‘Free Fire’ Is Clever and Vigorous — Just Don’t Expect It to Be Smart

Ben Wheatley's latest is Reservoir Dogs meets Smokin’ Aces minus any and all narrative ambition.

We’ve just escalated from singed slacks and blazers to flesh wounds when Ord (Armie Hammer) captures the spirit of Free Fire like a cocktail party anecdote. He turns to his client Vern (Sharlto Copley), who’s fretting about his own mounting blood loss, and quickly explains there’s still time left on this earth. “It’s the Golden Hour-and-a-half,” Ord schools. “It’s a rule.”

For the new self-contained gunfight movie from Ben Wheatley, Ord’s combat colloquialism is more inspiration than rule. The Golden Hour-and-a-half is the window of time between first blood and total attrition during which Free Fire will empty every last chamber of its genre-movie zest, before bailing hard at the 90-minute mark. The film has no illusions about its slight frame. It’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) meets Smokin’ Aces (2006) minus any and all narrative ambition. Eight crooks of different stripes enter an abandoned factory in 1978 Boston. It’s an arms deal just waiting to go awry. Out come the firearms. Most won’t survive.

On one side, there’s the faction with the briefcase. Justine (Brie Larson) is its centerpiece, a deal broker with a self-proclaimed “IIFM” philosophy. (“In it for myself,” she elaborates for an onlooker; it’s yet another cheeky instance of pretending viewers should know slang they don’t.) Chris (Cillian Murphy) is the sensitive IRA fighter for whom Justine is buying these rifles. He’s the kind of criminal who bashfully invites her to dinner when this is all over. His senior partner and countryman Frank (Michael Smiley) harbors no such sentiment. They’ve brought a couple lackeys for muscle: Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

The faction bringing the rifles to the table is a mirror image, represented by one cold capitalist and backed by some genuine scum. Armie Hammer’s Ord is the polished intermediary. The over-dressed and too gregarious Vern (Copley) and his seething partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) are the leadership, with Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) doing the driving and unloading.

The early anecdotal characterization of the two crews is Tarantino-worthy. Vern was a “misdiagnosed child genius and he never got over it,” Justine explains. Stevo sheepishly smokes heroin en route to the deal because his partner doesn’t have any aspirin for a headache: “Talk about a fucking sledgehammer to crack a nut.” Ord wants to be sure everyone has masturbated prior to the exchange. He doesn’t want to be around anyone “with a loaded weapon”.

Considering the dialogue prowess shown by Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump, this bottle-movie is an exhibition in lines of fire, for both bullets and banter. The sharp, brief rapport of the gunfire might be reflected in your theater too. In my screening, the dialogue elicited a barrage of snorts and quick cackles — nothing sustained, all in-kind responses to punchlines.

As for the visual of a factory crumbling around a firefight, the violence is eccentric and constant but never reaches an aesthetic fantasy. No sequences of bullets are slowed down or shown traveling in first person from a gun barrel. Quick cuts from shooters to targets are plentiful, but the camera appears to be most intrigued by the physical effort and mistakes the characters make while trying to survive. The broader visual comprises hundreds of quick pans arching over hip bones and shoulders as people crawl, leap and spin to safety.

The cast commits completely to the action-comedy amalgam, but it’s only Hammer who rises above his station as an ensemble player, and unexpectedly and remarkably so. Was anyone waiting for the blond giant — who played the Winklevoss twins and the maligned 2013 Lone Ranger — to prove he could be a comedic standout? Hammer’s Ord retains a shtick all his own while the rest of the cast slowly bleeds its specificity as the Golden Hour-and-a-half wears on.

The movie uses Hammer’s excessively handsome jawline, strapping build, news anchor diction and manicured wardrobe as contrast to the decrepit hoods and the mayhem around him. One particular sequence, in which Ord stretches out his back in preparation to attack someone with a crowbar, is Dwayne Johnson-quality physical comedy. For something more subtle, Ord starts to look distraught as the casualties pile up — not about the fact that he could die, but ostensibly because he’s not as cool as he thought when he looked in the mirror earlier that day. With bullets flying past, Hammer glowers as if his character missed a sale on the fall’s hottest turtlenecks or had to skip a week at the squash courts.

While the fire is free, Wheatley’s latest is constrained by the single card it has to play: guns in a room. For the film’s first half, the pistols are treated like backyard toys. The criminals hoot, guffaw and boast when they tag an opponent in a calf muscle or a tricep. “Did you cheaters bring a sniper?” Ord calls out at one point, further foregrounding the gamification of the intensifying violence. It’s clever, but you couldn’t call this lightweight movie smart. It wants for a theme of any kind. The meaning of such cruelty and desperation isn’t considered by a single character — or the film itself.

The middling fate of Free Fire is sealed when the film becomes exactly what it foreshadowed. The prelude to a gunfight and the tension mingling with rapid characterization is the real pleasure. The subsequent deaths have a hint of obligation to them. Granted, it made no bigger promises, but at 90 minutes it’s still too long for what it has to offer. That’s disappointing, because Wheatley and Jump aren’t just getting lucky with the banter or the costuming or the cinematography — there’s genuine imagination at work. Few would claim it’s not an entertaining powder keg to watch ignite. It’d be even harder to argue it’s anything more.

RATING 6 / 10