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'Free Fire' is Jokey Ensemble Shootout Comedy

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It seems indelicate to recommend a movie that features gun violence so prominently (and so flippantly) in the immediate wake of the Steve Stephens incident, but Free Fire, directed by Brit Ben Wheatley, which opens Friday in limited release, does precisely that. It's an ensemble period piece (1978, Boston) that's much more a "shootout comedy" than a traditional "action comedy." The bulk of the film is an elaborate, often hysterical, warehouse gun fight precipitated by an arms deal that goes south (as arms deals are wont to do).

Chris (Cillian Murphy) is an emissary from Ireland, presumably with ties to the IRA. He's in the U.S. to buy machine guns from a dandy of a South African dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his attache Martin (Babou Ceesay). The dockside warehouse meeting has been facilitated, to varying degrees, by Chris's associate Frank (Michael Smiley), a dodgy negotiator named Justine (Brie Larsen) and a pot-smoking, sports coat-wearing fixer named Ord (Armie Hammer). Tension initially mounts when Vernon supplies the wrong model firearm, but it bubbles over when the opposing "muscle" (Sam Riley and Jack Reynor, respectively) squabble over a personal disagreement from the previous evening.

Much to everyone's annoyance, the ordeal becomes an all-out shootout.

The melee is happily, and for the most part coherently, staged, with the opposing combatants taking cover behind vehicles, blocks of concrete, and assorted bags and machinery harvested from the industrial site. Everyone is shot, repeatedly, and in many cases beaten, burned, strangled and cudgeled in one-on-one brawls. Yet they all remain chipper throughout, exchanging barbs as they exchange fire. It must be no accident that no one ever seems seriously injured — the duration of a few of the characters' survival is an ongoing gag — until the end. And given the tone, even when few are left standing, you half-expect everyone to get up, pat the dust and blood from their jackets and limp back to their cars as they light cigarettes. It's more like watching a hyper-realistic paintball battle with '70s-era costumes and hairdos than an actual gun fight.

The script is bumpy at first. The pre-shootout scenes sometimes play like first takes, and the chummy chemistry only develops as the violence escalates. Copley, with his blond hair and outrageous accent, is the highlight, a source of recurring humor. At one point, he sheathes himself in cardboard to protect his beloved suit.

The shootout, however, isn't quite diverse or interesting enough in its choreography or internal narratives not to induce a bit of boredom. Given the brief 83-minute run time, why not invest an additional eight or 10 minutes for character development and mystery-building before the shootout? There is a twist relating to the allegiance of one of the characters, and while the idea is appreciated, the groundwork for the revelation is flimsily laid.

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