If Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie had spent a few nights carousing when they were rising stars on the film festival circuit, hashing out violent ideas and trying to one-up each other’s swagger, the resulting collaboration would have looked a lot like “Free Fire.”
The 1970s-set dark comedy about an arms deal gone spectacularly wrong is basically “Reservoir Dogs,” minus the diner scene and the flashbacks, meets “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”
“I just want everyone to go home happy from this deal,” Justine (Brie Larson) says in a breathtaking case of jinxing oneself.
She and Ord (Armie Hammer) are in the process of brokering a weapons sale between Irish Republican Army operative Chris (Cillian Murphy), South African gunrunner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and their various associates.
Things get off to a bad start when Vernon and his partner, Martin (Babou Ceesay), bring 10 cases of the wrong assault rifles to the meeting. But the deal proceeds relatively smoothly until Vernon’s man Harry (Jack Reynor) recognizes heroin addict Stevo (Sam Riley), who’s aligned with Chris and elder statesman Frank (Michael Smiley), as the creep who sent his female cousin to the hospital the night before.
Insults are hurled, tensions flare, pride rears its ugly head, and before long, everyone in the abandoned factory is shooting at pretty much anything that moves.
It isn’t long before no one trusts anyone, even the people they came with. The fact that Chris’ briefcase full of cash is left unattended in the middle of the factory for anyone to grab only heightens the paranoia. “I forgot whose side I’m on!” Stevo’s pal Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) screams at one point.
Director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the script with Amy Jump, stages the sensational, real-time carnage as a parody of gun violence, and the result is a wonderful surprise. According to the press notes, some 6,000 rounds of ammo were fired during the production, and it seems as though at least half of them end up in one of the dozen or so combatants. Eventually all the participants just start shooting whatever exposed limbs they can see, often out of spite, as they hobble, crawl, slither and drag themselves toward safety — or at least in its general direction.
In the process, they destroy yards and yards of wonderful polyester, in virtually every color of the spectrum.
Oscar winner Olsen (“Room”) adds a touch of class to the proceedings. Copley (“District 9”) has some delightful line readings as the high-maintenance, Savile Row-wearing Vernon. But Hammer is a downright revelation as the smug, condescending Ord.
Rarely one of the five most charismatic actors in any given movie, Hammer plays the character as though he’s playing Jon Hamm playing Ord. It’s delicious and nearly worth the price of admission alone.
As the gun battle rages on, Hammer takes the time to fix his hair in the side mirror of the van he’s using for cover. When he fights Chris up close and personal, the Irishman remarks that Ord smells like perfume. “It’s beard oil!” an indignant Ord replies.
It’s impossible to overstate just how violent “Free Fire” is. I lost count of how many times a character screams some variation of, “You (expletive) shot me again!” But since most of it is played as farce, it rarely comes across as gory.
In addition to unleashing a stunning volume of bullets, “Free Fire” also pulls off a truly stirring use of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”
And that, much like the arms deal at the center of the film, is much more difficult than it would seem.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.