Movie Review: “Free Fire” burns a lot of ammo making a potent but simple point about guns

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The audience rejection of “Free Fire,” the gonzo guns-and gunplay action comedy from the director of “High Rise,” may represent some tipping point moment for Americans’ attitudes about gun violence and its cavalier treatment on the big screen.

Probably not. Maybe people have stayed away because the cast, which includes Oscar winner Brie Larson, “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” hero Armie Hammer and “District Nine” South African Sharlto Copley, doesn’t have one box office name in it.

But when you’re looking at a dozen or so IRA gun buyers and assorted gun dealers, trapped in a shootout in an abandoned, concrete-walled factory in 1970s Boston, the message in the mayhem is more pointed than perhaps the film’s potential fans realize.

A hail of bullets reduces us all to an earlier place in our evolution — crawling, bleeding and wounded, struggling to survive but counting the minutes until we bleed out. And no amount of ammo or firepower changes that.

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The set-up — IRA types (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) employ local talent and a couple of go-betweens (Hammer and Larson) to make a buy of American semi-automatic weapons. The sellers are led by Vernon (Copley), and include Babou Ceesay (“Eye in the Sky”) and Noah Taylor (“Rush”).

Everybody’s glib and flippantly insulting, especially the dapper, preppy Ord (Hammer).

“You smell good,” a hoodlum hurls his way. “Thank you. It’s your MOTHER.”

One zinger, after the shooting gets started, stings.

“Bet you thought you were too handsome to get shot!”

Because yeah, you stick a bunch of armed, paranoid, drug-addled or just gun-nut-dumb crooks into an enclosed space with a lot of ricochet-prone surfaces, any little thing can set it off. And in this case, it’s a big thing and it’s a big coincidence.

Larson, whose acting in this is entirely too casual for somebody who should be afraid for her life and aware of the carnage assorted pistols and assault rifles can carve out, may just “want everyone to go home happy with this deal.” But no one does.

Murphy’s IRA gun buyer isn’t so into the deal that he can’t flirt with the one “bird” in their midst. Copley’s gun seller is entirely too testy and confrontational for this to go easily.

And then there are the hotheads, druggies and aggrieved subordinates to worry about.

Co-writer/director Ben Wheatley stages the shootout as if everybody has an endless supply of ammo in their purse or leisure suit jacket. The whizz and zing of bullets on the soundtrack will keep you doing what the principals do — ducking, hugging the floor or concrete pillar or sand bag — whatever shelter they can find — in between hailstorms of bullets.

Hammer has the most fun with the gunplay, Murphy gets the most grunt out of his wounds and Larson looks as out of place here as she did in that King Kong movie. Seriously, dear, you collect a check you commit to the part.

It’s a simpler than simple movie, with characters lurching between life and death, listening to John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and cracking wise during a shoot-out staged in real time. An anachronism? Characters who keep saying “It’s ALL good.” That’s a recent construction — Tiger Woods beat it to death — unused in the far out ’70s.

But the zingers are mostly flat, the bloodshed a hilarious collection of movie-prolonging shoulder, arm and leg wounds and the whole a generally unpleasant Who Dies Next? about characters we never, for one second, care about.

The guns become the stars — snub nosed revolvers, AR 70 and Garrand rifles. Not that most of these guys can hit what they’re shooting at. Funny how that works when you’re shooting while being shot at. It’s not as easy as most movies make it seem.

Still, “Free Fire” falls short as a moral lesson or satiric statement, shorter still as a “Shoot’em Up” style ballet of bullets.  For this Tarantino-take-off to have been as cool as the trailers hinted, they’d have needed more gold chains, more drugs, more open-collared shirts and more Gun Nut in Chief Ted Nugent music.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use

Cast: Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Noah Taylor

Credits:Directed by Ben Wheatley, script by Amy Jump (screenplay), Ben Wheatley . An A-24 release.

Running time: 1:30

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