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updated: 4/19/2017 2:21 PM

Gun deal gone bad triggers epic shootout in black comedy 'Free Fire'

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  • Justine (Brie Larson) doesn't want to be a nice girl in Ben Wheatley's violent black comedy "Free Fire."

    Justine (Brie Larson) doesn't want to be a nice girl in Ben Wheatley's violent black comedy "Free Fire."

 
 

If Sam Peckinpah remade "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," you'd get something like Ben Wheatley's ode to the cinema of comic cruelty "Free Fire."

A bunch of sleazy guys and a slightly less sleazy woman walk into a Boston warehouse during the 1970s to conduct an illegal gun deal.

For nearly 30 minutes, they banter and badger each other, giving us quick character sketches of this colorful rogues' gallery.

It all seems so passive, but we intuitively realize Wheatley (writing with co-editor Amy Jump) has been goosing the tension by piling on the motivational kindling soon to be ignited by a couple of hotheads with guns.

Then the place explodes into a fiery Hogan's Alley free-for-all with bullets flying, blood spraying and characters running, diving, limping, crawling and screaming.

Think of the comically quick shootout at the end of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," only with more gunmen blasting away for a full hour, and they're worse marksmen than pursuing baddies in a 007 movie.

Call it "Plot Simple."

On one side of the deal gone bad, a middleman named Ord (a bearded Armie Hammer, channeling period French star Franco Nero) leads the negotiations for Justine (Brie Larson), Irish Republican Army agent Chris (Cillian Murphy), two incompetent henchmen Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley), plus their leader Frank (Michael Smiley, a Wheatley film fixture),

The other side has gregarious South African gun dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), loose cannon Harry (Jack Reynor), plus a couple of disposable associates Martin (Babou Ceesay) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

Unlike how the cartoony and sanitized "The Fate of the Furious" suggested disturbing acts of violence off-screen, "Free Fire" wallows in the violence and pulls us into the wallowing as well.

Martin takes a bullet to the head and appears dead. But he revives to wander around, uttering hilariously incongruent remarks while unaware of his head wound.

"So that's what a brain looks like!" Gordon marvels, looking at Martin's head.

Wheatley, whose previous films include "High Rise" and "A Field in England" (plus two "Doctor Who" segments), conducts a choreographed symphony of on-screen violence that demands we feel it, absorb it and be shocked by it, so much that we inadvertently laugh as a tension relief reflex.

The weaponizing of a crowbar makes for a particularly gruesome scene, but the movie's piece de resistance of empathetic pain: Vernon rams his hand into a dirty hypodermic needle while crawling on the grimy floor.

A reported 6,000 bullets go off in "Free Fire" and when they hit, they strike legs, arms and bulky 1970s leisure suit shoulder pads. An hour into this epic shoot-em up, most of the characters can barely move while attempting to stem their blood losses.

A shot-to-pieces Justine inches along on the floor frantically attempting to escape another crawling, shot-to-pieces gunman in the slowest "chase" scene since a wounded Robert Foxworth pursued a wounded criminal at sloth speed in "The Black Marble."

"You seem like a nice girl," says the gunman, who runs out of ammo.

"We can't all be nice girls," replies Justine, who demonstrates she isn't.

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