Starring Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy; directed by Ben Wheatley; 90 minutes; R for strong violence, pervasive profanity, sexual references and drug use
"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. 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.
Each side of the transaction has brought along some extra muscle, conveniently bringing 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, the movie becomes a then-there-were-two countdown.
"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's 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.