Writer-director Ben Wheatley, the Englishman known best for his 2015 release High-Rise, is ready to make some noise with his follow-up, Free Fire, an action-comedy that comes with plenty of star power. Obviously having taken notes from such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah, Wheatley’s latest is sure to grab the attention of action-film fans, although it’s not smoothest of entries and tends to drag after its promising premise wears off.

Starring Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor and Patrick Bergin, Wheatley posits all of these actors in one location. In an illegal weapons deal gone awry, everyone fends for themselves as Free Fire becomes one big Mexican standoff. Wheatley chose to focus on everyone, rather than one character in particular. That choice is further cemented by the notion that there are no backstories – Free Fire is simply a situational action piece which surmises how a group of people would react when placed in the same life-or-death situation. Stripped of any complication, Free Fire mostly hits its target even if it’s a tale you’ll forget about 5 minutes after you watch it.

If there is any sort of message to take away, it’s that crime never seems to play out as planned. Its opening scene is of Riley, playing Stevo, and his partner, Bernie (Cilenti). Stevo looks awful – a result of his constant drug use, while Bernie looks as clean as a soiled petri dish. The lasting images of these two is paramount in understating what’s in store – Free Fire is dirty and messy, and trusting no one is the best course of action for survival.

Wheatley knows this, and uses that to help further his film. He wrote the script with his wife, Amy Jump, but instead of using slick dialogue (like Tarantino) or steady camerawork (like Scorsese), Wheatley sells images (and havoc, like Peckinpah) – people hiding behind various objects and firing at any and everything that moves. Occasionally a smart quip is uttered, but for over two-thirds of the feature people are crawling, moaning in pain, reloading their weapons, smoking (we can thank Armie Hammer and his splendid take on his character, Ord) and generally planning their escapes (and who to kill next). The problem with that is since we’re not invested in any one character, their fates are immaterial. Wheatley and Jump don’t care about an ending – they just want audiences to enjoy the trip. But just to make sure the road is a little bumpier they throw in a third party of shooters who help to make the proceedings even more chaotic.

The most memorable thing of Free Fire may be Copley, who’s known best for playing oddball characters, is a hot-tempered sleaze as Vernon. Vernon is an arms dealer, and he flies off the handle early when he feels that Chris (Murphy) and Frank (Smiley) are being disrespectful during their meeting. Albeit, Vernon has already soured the proceedings when he shows up with the wrong guns, but Copley’s performance is over the top in a picture that wants to be over the top. In addition, most of Free Fire’s humor stems from Vernon and the few lines he delivers. If there was more dialogue, this could’ve been a true winner, but I’m happy with Vernon’s musings, regardless of how asinine they are.

Wheatley isn’t likely to gain a massive amount of new fans with his latest, but action junkies will appreciate this entry since it’s not just people shooting at each other just to shoot. I think the humor is lacking (most of the laughs can be seen in the trailers), and thus its 90-minute running time feels longer, but Free Fire is fun enough to take a chance on. Besides, how many action films do you know uses John Denver songs for much of its score? That oxymoron is a winner, even in a film full of losers.

3 stars out of 5


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