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A shoot-'em-up

Ben Wheatley's 'Free Fire' is not much more.


LIMB BY LIMB: Brie Larson takes aim as "Justine," an arms deal go-between in Ben Wheatley's noir comedy "Free Fire."
  • LIMB BY LIMB: Brie Larson takes aim as "Justine," an arms deal go-between in Ben Wheatley's noir comedy "Free Fire."

Audacious and raw, "Free Fire" works as a mashup between a shoot-'em-up Western, a bleakly comedic gangster noir and maybe an auteur's curiosity experiment in tight-confines filmmaking. As in: They're not really going to keep all these people in an abandoned factory the entire movie, are they? Turns out, yes, they are. Writer/director Ben Wheatley ("High Rise") strands a dozen or so characters (whose backstories are borderline inconsequential) who get sparked into a gun battle during an arms deal gone sour. And ... that's it. You could plausibly re-enact it by stuffing a jug with scorpions and giving a good, hard shake.

Even if this mousetrap feels like something Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino would've outgrown by his early 20s, give Wheatley this much: "Free Fire" is an uncommonly tightly blocked and shot movie that actually brings the fog of war into a coherent narrative. Apparently the director rendered the set first in the Lego-esque virtual world of "Minecraft," and took cinematographic inspiration from first-person shooter video games. The result is a panicked sense of simultaneous confinement and exposure. Bullets fly around; the camera stays inches off the ground as characters, usually themselves shot a few times, clamber through dirt and debris; everyone is pinched between wanting cheap revenge and just wanting out of this hellhole.

Start in the late '70s, where a couple of Boston hired-muscle mooks meet up with a couple of IRA operatives (including Cillian Murphy) and an intermediary played by Brie Larson. They're greeted by another dealmaker, played like a magazine-ad scotch drinker by Armie Hammer. They wander deep inside an abandoned factory to a large and strangely well-lit chamber that looks like downtown Aleppo writ small: Chunks of old concrete walls and steel beams jut out of the floor at intervals, like stalagmites. The floor is mostly dry dirt. It's moody.

Two arms dealers (one of them Sharlto Copley) emerge. They have machine guns. It becomes clear quickly that they've brought the wrong guns (AR-17s, not M-16s) and that Copley's skeezy dealer has some sort of past with Brie Larson. Tensions, as they say, escalate when it becomes clear one of the dealer's mooks has serious beef with one of the buyer's mooks. Knowing there'd be no chaotic shoot-'em-up if no one ever pulled a trigger, it's fascinating to watch Wheatley crank up the burner and harden two fractured groups of iffy mercenaries into easy-bake gangs — quipping and chipping at each other, everyone gets to hate someone else on the spot. No one wants to take a bullet for anyone else in the room. And yet, once someone does squeeze off that starter shot, it's on like the proverbial Donkey Kong.

"Free Fire" will, over the next hour, test your resolve to watch people shoot one another, yell, fight and loosely try to broker some kind of detente. (Setting the movie in present day, rather than 40 years ago, would've resulted in an entirely different feel: First person to get a cell signal wins.) A couple of lurid, pulpy deaths aside, "Free Fire" is content to pick its characters apart limb by limb. The wounded become the maimed; the maimed still have to keep attacking if they want to get out alive. Keeping things lively are the two or three characters who care so little about the consequences that they reliably stir up tornadoes of shit every time you feel a lull coming on.

It would've been more fun had Wheatley found an extra gear — a few more twists, a deeper vein of narrative. But a tightly wound, immaculately crafted gun battle to the grisly end ain't a bad consolation.

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