Free Fire (A24, R)

You never learn enough about any characters to really care what happens to them, and you may feel before long that it would be a favor to mankind if they all died in an explosion.

I’m not sure if “gunplay comedy” is a recognized genre within filmmaking, but it should be. Like horror comedy, gunplay comedy relies on the fact that laughter comes more easily when it serves as a release of tension. In the gunplay comedy, that tension is created by the threat or presence of extreme and plentiful violence, and the success of the film depends on the fact that, given an appropriate setup, a substantial percentage of the movie-going audience will laugh rather than flinch when they see someone shot on screen.

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire takes this concept about as far as it can go, with about two-thirds of its 90 minutes taken up with gunplay. I’m somewhat amazed Wheatley manages to keep things interesting for that length of time, given how much he relies on well-known gunplay tropes (someone seems to be dead until they aren’t; someone has a clear shot, only to have their weapon misfire; someone is out of ammunition until they’re not; and so forth). Sharp editing by Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump deserves a lot of credit for the film’s effectiveness, as does expert work from the sound department.

Free Fire takes place within the context of other films, not the real world, for better or worse. Within the grungy warehouse where most of the film takes place, the laws of physical and biological reality are suspended in favor of the rule of cool: If something looks cool enough, it doesn’t have to make any sense at all.

The story begins with a weapons sale to the IRA, taking place in 1978 in an abandoned warehouse in or near Boston. Don’t worry too much about the details, however: The deal quickly goes bad due to the idiotic behavior of some of the players, compounded by the impressive array of available weaponry they have at their disposal, not due to anyone’s political convictions. Besides, once the bullets start flying, you’ll have a hard time remember who was on which side—and you probably won’t care anyway.

As in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Free Fire features a briefcase full of money. However, unlike Tarantino, Wheatley doesn’t bother to make that briefcase particularly interesting or special; it’s just full of money and the characters all want it for that reason. This is an example of the main problem I have with Free Fire: It’s made up of bits and pieces of many better films (The Usual Suspects is another obvious ancestor, and one of the characters even looks and dresses like McManus), but fails to do much of anything with them.

The cast is surprising strong for a film of this type, including one Oscar winner (Brie Larson—because somebody has to be the chick) and a host of reliable actors, including Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Sharlto Copley. They’re all decked out in bad 1970s clothes and hair, and each is conveniently supplied with one or two distinguishing characteristics (Copley is a dandy with a South African accent; Riley is a local idiot who doesn’t know when to shut up) that make it easier to tell them apart. However, you never learn enough about any characters to really care what happens to them, and you may feel before long that it would be a favor to mankind if they all died in an explosion. I certainly did, although I would spare Larson and Murphy’s characters if only because they were less annoying than the others.

I will say this for Wheatley’s gangsters: They talk like a bunch of Sunday School teachers compared to the usual cinematic depiction of their kind, with nary a C-word to be heard anywhere. Maybe Wheatley calculated a tradeoff—less bad language, lots more violence—in the hopes of reaching a broader audience. Or perhaps he made a specific concession to American audiences, who are notorious for not understanding British slang, and whose tolerance for bad language is bizarrely much lower than their tolerance for the portrayal of deadly violence.

I suspect Free Fire will make back its budget several times over, because it can’t have cost that much (reportedly $10 million) to make in the first place, and there’s a ready market for this type of film. It’s positioned in the market similarly to the low- to moderate-budget horror movies that keep getting made. No one can expect it to outgross the blockbuster comic book movies, but it should turn a nice profit for all involved. | Sarah Boslaugh

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