All shootout, no filler in ‘Free Fire’

San Francisco Chronicle - - MOVIE REVIEWS - By Wal­ter Ad­diego Wal­ter Ad­diego is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: wad­diego@sfchron­i­

Fans of the danker depths of genre movies will feast on “Free Fire,” a feral ex­er­cise in high-en­ergy moviemak­ing that boils down to an ex­tended shootout in a de­crepit ware­house. And I do mean ex­tended: Af­ter a mod­est setup, wild gun­play fills maybe two-thirds of the film’s 90-minute run time.

A com­edy and a la­bor of love, the movie is a take­off on 1970s ac­tion films that’s been stripped of filler to con­cen­trate on pure vis­ceral thrills. The di­rec­tor is Bri­tain’s Ben Wheatley, a cult fig­ure who of­ten works with writer Amy Jump (his wife). Their highly idio­syn­cratic out­put in­cludes the 2012 bloody black com­edy “Sight­seers” and last year’s “High-Rise,” based on a dystopian novel by J.G. Ballard.

Cer­tainly the film­mak­ers have soaked up the work of Sam Peck­in­pah, Quentin Tarantino, John Woo and Martin Scors­ese (ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of “Free Fire”), past masters at de­pict­ing over-thetop bat­tles with firearms. Wheatley aims to outdo them all, em­ploy­ing a min­i­mum of plots and a cast of walk­ing, talk­ing ac­tion-movie cliches who trade quips and in­sults be­tween vol­leys of bul­lets.

It’s the late 1970s in Bos­ton, and an IRA op­er­a­tive, Chris (Cil­lian Mur­phy), with a brief­case full of cash, wants to pur­chase sev­eral dozen high­pow­ered as­sault weapons. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing Chris are a hand­ful of char­ac­ters — it’s a ter­rific cast — played by Brie Lar­son, Michael Smi­ley and Sam Ri­ley. Afi­ciona­dos of wacky ’70s hair and cloth­ing styles will have much to sa­vor.

The sell­ers are led by Sharlto Co­p­ley’s hi­lar­i­ously loutish Vern, wear­ing what must be the ugli­est suit ever made on Sav­ile Row. His team in­cludes Ar­mie Ham­mer (with beard and turtle­neck), a fe­ro­cious Jack Reynor and a former Black Pan­ther played by Babou Ceesay.

There’s bad blood be­tween the Reynor and Ri­ley char­ac­ters. The weaponry Vern brings is not what was re­quested. And every­one on both sides is armed to the teeth. Guess what fol­lows.

It’s a shootout for the ages, some­thing that might have been chore­ographed by Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny, etc.) at his most an­ar­chic — if he had re­ally been into guns. Every­one wants to grab the cash; al­most every­one has been wounded (mostly in the limbs), so we see a lot of bleed­ing peo­ple crawl­ing on their bel­lies and fir­ing at any­thing that moves. A cou­ple of as­sas­sins later join the fray (and who is em­ploy­ing them?) and the film toys with the con­stant pos­si­bil­ity of com­bat­ants switch­ing sides. Yes, it’s gun­play, but it’s funny and ghastly at the same time.

To fore­stall au­di­ence burnout, the film­mak­ers have in­serted a few lulls in the ac­tion. That helps, as do the comic ver­bal sal­lies that ac­com­pany the gun­fire. Still, af­ter a while we may feel that, OK, we’ve got­ten what Wheatley and com­pany are up to, but they are push­ing on re­gard­less.

Quib­bling aside, “Free Fire” mainly works, as an in­dul­gence in cin­e­matic overkill for movie­go­ers who re­al­ize that some­times too much is just enough.


Noah Tay­lor (left), Jack Reynor, Sharlto Co­p­ley and Ar­mie Ham­mer star in the new shoot-’em-up thriller “Free Fire.”

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