English director Ben Wheatley guns for gangster greatness with “Free Fire,” a prolonged shootout that plays like it’s the bastard child of Martin Scorsese (who boasts an executive producer cred). In his follow-up to the unrepentantly deranged class-conflict thriller “High-Rise,” Wheatley unfurls a motley crew of criminals, who’ve come together for a high-tension arms deal that quickly descends into a vicious and blood-drenched mayhem.
The deal goes down in 1978 Boston, in an abandoned warehouse that plays as the perfect setting for all hell breaking loose, with sprays of bullets, tears of screams, showers of rubble, and so much shredded polyester blazers. Cillian Murphy stars as an Irish Republican Army operative seeking to buy 30 automatic rifles. With him, he’s brought muscle in the form of a glowering old-timer (Michael Smiley), and a pair of smack-talking smackheads (Enzo Cilenti and Sam Riley). It’s a troublesome start, but nothing that rattles Justine (Brie Larson), a cool blond with no-nonsense attitude and an air of invincibility. She’s the liaison to a peculiar pair of gunrunners, one a former Black Panther (Babou Ceesay), the other an “English/South African” big mouth with a fetish for pristine leisure suits (Sharlto Copley). Rounding out their crew is a bearded, burly and beaming Armie Hammer, a weedy Noah Taylor, and a fiery and irreverent Jack Reynor.
The sides are hastily established in scenes of brief but biting dialogue. Like when one junkie asks another for “headache medicine” and is offered heroin, he quips, “Talk about a sledge to crack a walnut!” Or when the boisterous Ord (Hammer) riles Frank (Smiley) by suggesting he go jack off before the deal kicks off, you know, to release tension and relax a little.
“Free Fire” is a sneering celebration of traditional machismo that recalls Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” from the sensational suits to the explosions of hard-R curse words, and a catastrophic catalyst born from impugned family pride. But there’s a wildness and unexpected authenticity here that Scorsese’s gunfights never offered. This crooked ensemble fires off shots that realistically send them sprawling to the ground, forced to wriggle like worms to avoid barrages of bullets, chucked rocks, or the eye-line of in-peril associates. There’s no Tarantino-styled bursts of bright-red blood (resurrection from from ’70s exploitation), no barely damaged heroes, and no “Matrix” or John Woo-styled slow motion that luxuriates in flawless dodges or perfect shots. The only slo-mo comes when the first bullet is fired, a heady tug on the audience — not to rejoice — but to wallow in the moment when everything all goes irreparably wrong.
Wheatley dares to give us violence that is senseless, graphic and grimy, but never in a revel. For one thing, none of these characters are noble nor are any seeking redemption through violence. It’s daring and provocative. But depending on how fascinating you find shootout scenes, your mileage may vary. For me, I was initially intrigued. But as more characters fell to the dirt, then became caked and camouflaged in it, I found it increasingly hard to pick out who is who as Wheatley’s cut leaps around this busted-down warehouse from one pool of blood and carnage to the next. Still, the bickering between faltering alliances provides some dark fun.
Copley is a demented delight as a tough guy who crumbles as soon as his suit’s staunch shoulder pad is shot off. Hammer, so often miscast or underused, clearly relished playing an arrogant mercenary, and spits his lines with an intoxicating blend of charm and condescension. In a cringe-inducing and thereby perfect, dingy satin bomber jacket, Riley is relentlessly maddening as a loose-lipped loose canon . Reynor pops like firecrackers, in bursts of energy and volatile entertainment. Larson is the eye of the storm, who seems above even this disaster, right until she’s shot down (literally) and forced to turn her fashionable scarf into an impromptu tourniquet.
Together, they all tumble to a finale that’s essentially a snarling smile, the kind where blood swims just at the edges. Which is to say, “Free Fire” is a fearless and sharp shoot ’em up, loaded with star power, and polished with gallows humor.
“Free Fire” arrives in theaters April 21.