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'Free Fire' gives Brie Larson a nasty, funny shoot-'em-up

The Oscar winner plays one of a dozen-or-so crooks shooting at each other in an abandoned warehouse.
Free Fire
Brie Larson plays the token woman in a warehouse full of shooting dudes in "Free Fire." Credit: Kerry Brown, A24

‘Free Fire’
Director:
Ben Wheatley
Stars: Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Sympathy is in the dictionary between s— and syphilis,” barks a mid-level criminal (Michael Smiley) about to get caught in a multi-way Mexican standoff. That’s “Free Fire” in a nutshell. And that’s director Ben Wheatley in a nutshell, too. Some filmmakers feel deeply about people. Wheatley doesn’t. The maker of “Kill List,” "Sightseers" and “High-Rise” views the human race as at best a nuisance and at worst a toxin, which the planet would do well to expel. He’d be happy if the dozen-or-so trigger-happy crooks in “Free Fire” shot at each other until no one was left.

Wheatley shoves a pile of actors with competing accents and ’70s facial hair stylings — among them Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, plus token female Brie Larson — into a dirty, dilapidated, abandoned warehouse. They’re there to do a simple arms deal. But when two low-level goons (Sam Riley and Jack Reynor) pick a fight with each other — over a not insubstantial grievance, mind you — everyone’s scattered about, hiding behind tumbled walls or broken cars, with way too many guns around to sort this mess out rationally.

Over “Free Fire”’s 90s minutes, allegiances shift or are forgotten entirely, and ulterior motives gradually come to light. Kill shots are few; usually characters are just wounded. It’s the kind of literally dirty movie that revels as the pretty Oscar winner of the bunch is forced to stitch up a nasty gash in her leg with whatever’s at hand and crawl over detritus. We don’t care which character dies, but we do grieve when the entertaining actor playing them has to exit the picture.

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It’s a neat trick: an action film in one setting, trying its best not to feel monotonous. It’s not monotonous, even though one minute is more or less like any other: a character shouts an insult, another shouts one back, boom, repeat. As usual, Wheatley has a sick, sick sense of humor, and a gift for darkly funny sight gags. (Even something like a shot of a rusty umbrella missing its canopy is worth a chuckle.)

Also as usual, he’s a bit sloppy. The script, by Wheatley and his working partner/wife Amy Jump, takes a bit too long to go next-level, to have its characters slink off and explore other parts of their locale. We’re not always sure of our bearings, of who is where or what they have to do to not get shot. Wheatley’s sloppiness worked gangbusters in the gruesome (and entirely unfunny) “Kill List,” where the vagueness added to the nightmare. (With “Sightseers,” he was going off a tight script he himself didn’t write.) It still mostly works for something like “Free Fire,” which always rebounds from a dead patch with a nasty joke, a funny line delivery (especially from Hammer, Copley and Reynor) or, eventually, some Midnight Movie gore. If only Wheatley thought up a better punchline.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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