You know what they say about men and guns. The longer the rifle, the … well, you finish that however you please. Ben Wheatley’s stylish and adrenaline-soaked shootout flick “Free Fire,” which hit South by Southwest on Monday night at the Paramount Theatre, also lets you draw your own conclusions about toxic masculinity. It also draws blood. So very much blood — 7,000 bullets’ worth, in fact.
Without spoiling the central conceit of the film too much — because it’s worth it to mutter “WHAT IN THE NAME OF MARTIN SCORSESE IS HAPPENING HERE” to yourself organically — the British director’s wry, sometimes slapstick action comedy concerns an arms deal gone bad very quickly and very hyperbolically.
In 1970s Boston, “in it for myself” Justine (Brie Larson, quietly suffering fools but also visibly rolling her eyes) brokers an arms deal between two gangs in a wrecked warehouse. On the gun-buying side, IRA operative Chris (a noble and surprisingly uncreepy Cillian Murphy) and his associates, including a raw-nerved and recently jumped junkie (Sam Riley). On the gun-running side, flamboyant boss Vernon (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, having a hoot as a flamingo who thinks he’s a hawk but who’s really a turkey), smooth-talking Ord (Armie Hammer, visibly in the throes of an endorphin rush) and their partners. When an unfortunate and unrelated coincidence leads to gunfire for non-commercial reasons, a madcap ensemble shootout ensues.
If that makes you think of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction,” it’s no stretch of the imagination that Quentin Tarantino and Wheatley watched a few of the same movies growing up. Technically speaking, “Free Fire” is a Swiss timepiece spinning until its hands fly off. The cast spends most of its time crawling and rolling and scooting behind crates and rubble, hobbled by bullets and any number of gory indignities. It’s a cartoonishly bloody ballet with constantly rising stakes and continually bruising egos, though sometimes at the expense of clear motivation. One can only imagine what the set looked like from above during filming. Wheatley, for his part, confirmed during an audience Q&A alongside Hammer and Copley that the blocking was a well-considered affair, despite any illusions of control cast members like Hammer might have had.
Speaking of Hammer, he’s made a career out of playing hunks of varying preppiness. He’s never been better served than here as an affably arm-draping bear of a bohemian, simultaneously above the rat-infested world he moves in but equally capable of holding his own within it. Larson, who looks so very at home in Cheryl Ladd finery, is criminally underserved, though. One could read that as a metatextual statement on fiercely intelligent women forced to look out for No. 1 in a system run by insecure cavemen with itchy trigger fingers. That might be too charitable to the script. She shines amid grime, but would it have killed Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump to throw her a little scenery to gnaw on, too?
It’s Copley, odious and charismatic, who steals the show, which is obviously the point of casting Sharlto Copley in your hyper-stylized shoot-em-up. Guy Ritchie wishes he had him in his stable. Copley, in the tackiest suit of ever tailored, swans about in (mostly) impotent rage, hiding a nigh unstoppable drive that leads to one scene straight out of a horror movie.
Wheatley at one point compared his characters to Sgt. Rock’s Easy Company, a motley crew of 1960s DC Comics soldiers, and said he would be game to direct a movie about the good sergeant. After a dangerously fun game of checkers like “Free Fire,” a ragtag comic book war game seems like a natural progression.
If the film has a glaring flaw, it is in the chaos that it so gleefully embraces. The endpoint of the melee is constantly obscured. Is it the money? Escape? Victory? Revenge? Making a well-timed phone call? Keeping senses of masculinity fully intact? It’s easy to hand-wave but makes for a plot with a few hollow bones. Similarly lost in the frenzy are the characters’ relationships, including a burgeoning flirtation between Larson and Murphy that only seems important when the script tells us it should be. Also lost: a couple entire characters, truth be told.
The head-spinning is ultimately worth it. As an entry in the genre canon, “Free Fire” rides its inventive premise into the sunset with snarky sadism and plenty of disco-era hair and flair. When boys love their toys a little too much, someone always loses an eye.