"Wait, I forgot whose side I'm on!" yells someone in the line of Free Fire, Ben Wheatley's lunatic shooting gallery and not much else.
We know how that confused, soon-to-be casualty feels. You can't tell the corpses without a scorecard in Free Fire, another live wire version of rats in a barrel eating each other, practically sweating Tarantino, who himself recycles from the Peckinpah pit.
This particular rat barrel is an abandoned Boston warehouse in 1978 where another illegal plan goes wrong to ironic pop musical accompaniment (John Denver gets the honor this time). The plan is to buy machine guns for export to the IRA resistance in Ireland but: "I'm IFM," someone else says. "In it for myself."
That goes for everyone in Free Fire, from a suave pot-smoking deal broker (Armie Hammer) to a junkie gunsel (Sam Riley), a dandy South African gunrunner (Sharlto Copley) and the lone woman packing heat (Brie Larson, before winning an Academy Award). She and an IRA sympathizer (Cillian Murphy) are the only ones in the bunch liking each other.
Firearms get tiresome when that's all a movie has in its holster. Free Fire is energetic throughout yet even at under 90 minutes overstays its welcome. Wheatley's dialogue co-written with his co-editor Amy Jump is a continuous barrage of threats and slag offs losing their punch when drowned out by gunfire.
The deal bristly proceeds until a foot soldier (Jack Reynor, so good in Sing Street) recognizes the junkie as his sister's assaulter. Escalated rage calls for some kind of justice then unplanned retribution. From there, it's anyone's guess if Free Fire is an action genre tribute or parody. Either would require more attention to character than Wheatley permits.
Two performances stick out from the body pile. Hammer's stoned amusement at the unfolding violence is fun. Copley's cowardice under fire comically brings into play cardboard armor and lines like: "He was misdiagnosed as a child genius and never got over it." However, Larson is under-served by a fascinating circumstance.
Larson completed filming her Oscar-winning turn in Room and moved directly to Free Fire while her performance was still being refined in an editing room. The actor isn't aware of what she just accomplished or what is going to happen to her life, but we are. It's interesting to observe Larson doing what she can with a small role she likely wouldn't accept now.
Free Fire empties its creative chambers long before the gunfire ends. It's populated by unappealing characters in a hamster wheel display of violence. After a while you wish everyone had better aim.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.