The shootout, often a ballet, is a battle royal in Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire.”
When the bullets start flying, Wheatley’s arms-deal-gone-wrong 1970s shoot-up comes to a crawl. There’s a total absence of slow-motion cartwheels. No one miraculously walks through a wall of fire to kill the bad guys with three precise shots. Not a single Scarlett Johansson roundhouse kick is in the house.
Instead, people get maimed, bloodied and dead. There’s no subsequent chase or flight from the police, just bickering and trench warfare … for the majority of the 90 minute film. The movie is 100 percent O.K. Corral.
It’s a formally impressive feat — set nearly entirely in the same rundown warehouse — but a thin and tedious one.
The film, the British director’s sixth, spends its first third gathering an ensemble of retro-outfitted characters under the glistening wet of a dark Massachusetts night. The setting and colorful, comic banter would fit into a George V. Higgins novel, or Peter Yates’ 1973 adaptation of “Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
It’s an international, much-mustachioed array of characters. A handful of Irish Republican Army agents (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) are meeting gun sellers (Sharlto Copley’s South African; Babou Ceesay’s former Black Panther). The deal has been brokered by a pair of savvy Americans (Brie Larson’s Justine, Armie Hammer’s turtle-necked Ord) and then there are a couple locals, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) brought in to carry the crates of assault weapons.
The latter two, sort of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the bunch, play a minor role in the meet-up but a pivotal one in its descent into orgiastic violence. Stevo, with a bruised face from the previous night’s exploits, ends up face-to-face with the man he tussled with and, well, all hell breaks loose.
All of them, while of various degrees of level-headedness, are self-consciously playing a role as street toughs. Best is Copley’s arch Verne, a self-described “rare and mysterious jewel,” most concerned with the stitching of his new suit. But once everyone takes cover throughout the abandoned factory and sporadically exchange fire in between snatches of ironic conversations, telling who’s on which side becomes impossible for us and for them. Nearly everyone is eventually hobbled by a gun wound; they collectively spend more time inching around on the floor than the stars of “Babies.”
The channeled spirit here — irreverent and violent — is undoubtedly “Reservoir Dogs”-era Quentin Tarantino. But “Free Fire” reminded me more of a short by its executive producer, Martin Scorsese. His 1967 six-minute “The Big Shave” showed a man who keeps cutting himself shaving until his face is a bloody mess — the Vietnam War in a nutshell.
“Free Fire,” too, would seem to be a satirical metaphor on warfare, where guns plus an international group of posturing wannabe tough-guys equals mutual destruction. But Wheatley’s devotion is less to any such critique than to his movie’s hermetic form. He is clearly enjoying himself, stretching his high-concept, criss-crossing chaos to the comic limit, even while his characters limp along behind.
At one point in the melee, one character speaks of the “golden rule” that one has an hour and a half before a bullet wound becomes fatal. Wheatley’s film, too, comes in exactly at that length. After 90 minutes of occasionally inspired dialogue and labored if compelling anarchy, it bleeds out.