Movie News & Reviews

Aiming for Tarantino, ‘Free Fire’ hits the mark

Yup, it’s the 1970s. Americans try to broker an arms deal between South African gun sellers and the IRA. Babou Ceesay (from left), Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Noah Taylor are among the stars.
Yup, it’s the 1970s. Americans try to broker an arms deal between South African gun sellers and the IRA. Babou Ceesay (from left), Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Noah Taylor are among the stars. A24

A dozen tough guys stewing in their own testosterone. A van packed with illegal weapons. A briefcase full of cash. A closed environment from which there is no easy escape.

What could go wrong?

A streamlined 90 minutes of pumped-up bullet blasting (literally) and wienie waving (metaphorically), “Free Fire” is the latest from Brit action auteur Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”).

Its true origins, though, are pure Quentin Tarantino, with special nods to “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hateful Eight.”

It’s no Tarantino, but this movie is still a nice example of in-your-face pressure-cooker moviemaking.

In an abandoned umbrella factory in Boston an arms deal is taking place. Chris (Cillian Murphy) has crossed the pond to buy automatic weapons for the IRA (the time is the mid-’70s, judging by the dreadful fashions, hairstyles and absence of cellphones).

He’s backed by the grimly efficient hit man Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), Frank’s screw-up brother-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley) and Stevo’s worthless running buddy, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti).

Selling the weapons is Rhodesian gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a world-class sleazebag whose smarmy mouth keeps writing checks his fists cannot cash. Good thing his seemingly civilized partner Martin (Babou Ceesay) is there to keep Vernon and his goon squad in check.

Supervising the transaction are the two middlemen who set up the deal. Ord (Armie Hammer) is a super-slick dude in a turtleneck and blazer who oozes post-modern irony; Justine (Brie Larson) is a cool beauty sharp enough to verbally emasculate chauvinists like Vernon but willing to use her seductive skills to get what she wants.

Insults are traded. Then gunshots. Then more insults-gunshots-insults-gunshots until just about every character has been seriously perforated and is taking cover behind concrete pillars and piles of dusty crates.

Ord and Justine try to talk sense into this crowd of macho-mad morons, but after a while they, too, pick up guns and start firing. It seems to be the thing to do.

Wheatley’s screenplay (written with his wife and frequent collaborator, Amy Jump) is a black comedy/actioner that doesn’t even worry about the usual dramatic niceties.

These personalities arrive fully formed, and in lieu of conventional character development we see them all gradually devolve into what-the-hell nihilism. Under its spell even the most cowardly among them fantasizes a triumph through glorious mayhem.

Oh, there might be a double cross playing out even as the participants are trading fire, but nothing too brain-taxing.

Wheatley’s earlier films have featured plenty of action, yes, but they’ve also been about male bonding and the shared morality of killers. His previous effort, “High-Rise,” was an allegory in which a rapidly deteriorating apartment building becomes a microcosm for the failure of British society.

By comparison, “Free Fire” is a no-subtext zone. What you see is what you get. But concentrate on the action and the smart-ass insults and you’ll be OK.

Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘Free Fire’

  1/2

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.

Time: 1:30.

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