The talented British director Ben Wheatley must believe that he has a mandate to push every premise into the red zone, playing havoc with your emotions while testing your endurance. His last film, an adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, was so successful in that regard that it was unwatchable. His new one, the black comedy Free Fire, is more agreeable, as if Wheatley had decided to take the sting — if not the blood — out of death. The result is reasonably entertaining and totally disposable. Which it shouldn’t be, given that its focus is on guns and the way that they facilitate mayhem. Gory farce can be bracing. It’s the glibness that’s unconscionable.
A pity, because he has a hell of a setup. It’s the 1970s, and several groups of hoods/businesspeople converge on an abandoned Boston-area warehouse to make an arms deal. (The buyer is the IRA, represented by Cillian Murphy.) I don’t know much about astrology, but from the start it’s clear that some planet is in some wrong constellation. The banter is hostile, and no one shrugs off an insult. As the pressure builds, I was laughing in anticipation and wondering who would be allies when the shooting started: Murphy and Brie Larson as a no-nonsense businesswoman? How about the bearded put-down artist with a Zen serenity played by Armie Hammer? And what will happen to Sharlto Copley, a great physical comedian who’s wonderful as a cocky/cringing South African kingpin who’s dismayed by bullet holes in his Saville Row suit. The warehouse with its ladders and piles of debris looks more and more like a giant playpen for gun freaks.
But Wheatley, for all his gifts, doesn’t quite hit his marks. Free Fire cries out for a spatial-temporal genius like Brian De Palma — though I imagine De Palma would have quickly gotten bored with the limited premise. When all hell breaks loose, you lose your bearings (who is with whom?), and the van that crashes with the still-blaring John Denver 8-track cassette is a good comic idea made excruciating by … too much John Denver. The movie is meant to be a nihilist joke, but it’s all fodder if you don’t give a damn about who’s being annihilated.
*This article appears in the April 17, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.