Review

With relentless action, 'Free Fire' takes comic aim at the foibles of men

Set in late-’70s Boston, the ferocious, funny and relentless “Free Fire” places a group of shady characters in a deserted warehouse for the sale of a few cases of machine guns. A personal dispute between two of the least important people in the deal, guys just there to move boxes, quickly escalates from yelling to fists to handguns to everyone there in a full-fledged shootout.

Once the shooting starts, the movie becomes a nostop battle. Amid the chaos, eventually one low-level hoodlum yells out that he can’t remember which side he’s on.

“Free Fire” is directed by Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote and edited the film with his wife, Amy Jump. The partnership between the two British filmmakers, who most recently gave us “High-Rise,” may be among the most exhilarating and genuinely collaborative in contemporary movies.

Their work has torn fearlessly through genres, combining a fan’s enthusiasm with a connoisseur’s eye. Following the disorienting gut-punches of “Kill List,” the road trip serial killer rom-com of “Sightseers,” the psychedelic historical simplicity of “A Field in England” and the sprawling dystopian satire of “High-Rise,” “Free Fire” is a savagely funny and viciously precise distillation of one of the pair’s favorite themes:

Men are idiots.

This is not a novel notion, but “Free Fire” sets out the ways men can trip over themselves, from outright ego, lazy obliviousness, posturing projection, deluding rationalizations and on down the line. In smartly examining the foibles and fragility of the male psyche, Wheatley and Jump also make the case for self-awareness and understanding.

The cast members attack their roles with palpable glee, a sense of enthusiastic exaggeration to match the outrageous goings-on. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy play IRA operatives who are the closest the film comes to having heroes; they just want to get the deal done and move on. Sharlto Copley relishes the eccentricities of his blowhard half-cracked crime lord while Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay and Enzo Cilenti make the most of it as they are caught in the crossire.

Brie Larson and Armie Hammer play fixers with no real stake in things. She becomes the glue holding it all together, and her performance unveils something thorny and dangerous beneath a placidly positive exterior. Asked if she’s with the FBI, her character Justine responds with the film’s signature line, “I’m IIFM — In it for Myself.”

Given the chaotic nature of the action, it’s a minor marvel that Wheatley, working with regular cinematographer Laurie Rose keeps the geography of the room and the location of each shooter consistently clear even as the action resets itself again and again, shifting dynamics, geography and allegiances depending on who can take aim at whom. It helps that once everyone has suffered minor wounds they can’t move too fast; chase scenes played out at a crawl’s pace become a, er, running gag.

“Free Fire” is executive produced by Martin Scorsese and his recent producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and the late-’70s Boston setting makes the new movie something of a parenthetical aside to Scorsese’s own “The Departed.” Wheatley’s film certainly could be seen as a shaggy dog shoot-’em-up fable that one cheap crook might tell to another while killing time.

“Free Fire” is not Wheatley’s best film, but it is a rollicking good time and, more important, an inadvertent skeleton key to thinking about and understanding the rest of his films. Like cartoons in the corner of Mad magazine, this is marginalia that illuminates the larger text.

“Free Fire”

Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.

In general release

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mark.olsen@latimes.com

@indiefocus

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