Twelve angry men and one tough “bird” walk into a dilapidated Boston warehouse and proceed to blast the building and one another to smithereens in “Free Fire,” a dizzyingly choreographed — and unexpectedly comedic — shoot-’em-up in which the body count hits double digits, while the bullet count proves downright impossible to fathom. A virtuoso feat of indiscriminate gunplay from director Ben Wheatley — who is, without a doubt, the most exciting thing to hit British genre cinema since Guy Ritchie, minus the latter’s eagerness to sell out — this almost cartoonishly over-the-top action movie crosses the irreverent cheekiness of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” with the ruthless spirit of 1970s B-movies, in which audiences hoped for a few minutes of what “Free Fire” sustains for the better part of 90 minutes.
Coming off her equally claustrophobic “Room,” Brie Larson plays the only lady in a group of guys whose guns serve as all-too-obvious extensions of their easily bruised egos. With poncy negotiator Ord (a bearded Armie Hammer) serving as middleman, the group is pretty evenly split: In one corner, there’s the contingent who want the weapons, including Irish Republican Army operative Chris (Cillian Murphy), shaggy team captain Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), lovely accomplice Justine (Larson), and hired-muscle stooges Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley). In the other stand their gun-running counterparts, represented by wheeler-dealer Vernon (weaselly South African actor Sharlto Copley, best known for “District 9”), Afro-sporting associate Martin (Babou Ceesay), duck-and-cover Gordon (Noah Taylor), and hothead Harry (an unrecognizable Jack Reynor).
With 30 assault rifles changing hands between them and additional concealed weapons on nearly everybody’s person, the well-lit space — which casts the rubble of an old umbrella factory in gold, maroon and teal — is essentially a Mexican standoff waiting to happen, and Wheatley and co-writer/wife Amy Jump make sure that the tension is palpable. First, Murphy’s character balks about the kind of guns he’s buying; then we learn that Harry was the one who clocked black-eyed Stevo the night before.
Soon enough something’s going to set these clowns off — though Wheatley manages to extend the suspense for nearly half an hour before the first antagonistic shot is fired. That bullet hits Stevo square in the chest, and he collapses to the ground in slow motion, giving everyone else in the room (and the theater) time to process what’s happening. From here on, it’s a free-for-all as everyone dives for cover, doing their best to pick off one another before getting shot themselves. The ensuing violence is treated with all the sanctity of a classic Tom and Jerry cartoon as the various characters take bullets to their backsides, popping up from behind their various hiding places to blast a few blind rounds in the general direction of their enemies.
With the exception of a gruesome head wound that leaves one character’s brains exposed (with a direct impact on his subsequent behavior), none of the injuries seem all that serious. Wheatley plays “Free Fire” as much for comedy as suspense, inviting us to laugh as bullets tear into the shoulder pads and sleeves of these tackily clad 1970s characters’ polyester suits. One gets the sense that he doesn’t want to kill anyone off too quickly, since it’s clearly more fun to torment them with multiple flesh wounds over the course of the movie’s epic firefight.
Editing all of this three-dimensional pandemonium (which DP Laurie Rose covers from as many angles as possible) must have posed an extreme logistical challenge, especially considering the sheer number of characters involved. There are more than a few times when it’s tough to discern who’s shooting at whom or why — though the mere fact that bullets are flying keeps the characters on their toes, and audiences hunkered down as well, lest a stray ricochet pick them off in their seats. While not nearly as bloody as Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” finale, “Free Fire” achieves and sustains its sense of carefully orchestrated chaos for nearly a full hour (augmented by aural wizard Martin Pavey’s intricate sound design, as well as the appearance of two freelance snipers, invited to the party by a culprit whose identity remains hidden for as long as possible).
Eschewing whatever eye-crossing allegorical statement he intended to make with “High Rise,” Wheatley has multiple reasons for setting this down-and-dirty little genre exercise in the 1970s — the decade that gave us such hot-box shootouts as “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” His choice not only justifies an outrageous wardrobe of wide-collared shirts and equally cringe-worthy leisure suits, but ensures that no one can whip out his cell phone and call for help amidst the melée. Instead, he situates the warehouse’s lone phone in an upstairs office, which elevates any attempt to get backup into a near-impossible suicide run.
Among the various motives at play, one segment of the shooters wants the briefcase of cash for themselves, another simply hopes to get out of the situation alive, while the most dangerous sees the general state of bedlam as the cover they need to settle personal scores. Neither Harry nor Stevo will rest until the other is dead, for example, and the gory resolution of their dispute sparks cheers from audiences who judge each “kill” in terms of its macabre creativity. Meanwhile, Wheatley heightens the absurdity with his soundtrack choices (which include a trio of ironically deployed John Denver classics, combined with strategic energy-boosting contributions from “Ex-Machina” composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow). The fact that they could all lay down their weapons and finish the deal heightens Wheatley’s generally irreverent approach, all of which serves to remind that guns don’t kill people; insecure, overcompensating idiots do.