Director Ben Wheatley's latest, "Free Fire," is not so much an action movie as it is—by design—an inaction movie. Pitting its ensemble cast of gunrunners and ne'er do wells against each other in a rundown factory, the film relishes the deliberately low-stakes in its greyhound-lean 90 minutes. While perfectly serviceable, the bullets-and-blood-puddle end result is aggressively just OK.
If "High-Rise" was Wheatley's prestige "message movie," then "Free Fire" is his between projects breather film. Taking place in roughly "real time," the film depicts an after-dark arms deal in seedy '70s Boston between two IRA members (Cillian Murphy and "Spaced's" Michael Smiley), their American contact (Brie Larson), smug intermediary Ord (Armie Hammer), gun runners Martin and Vernon (Babou Ceesay and perennial cinematic MVP Sharlto Copley), and their various hired muscle. When it comes to light that the two sides' goons have beef from a late-night bar brawl, the deal goes south and the bullets start flying.
The film's slow burn opener is, without question, its greatest strength and a testament to Wheatley's strength as a writer (he co-wrote the film with Amy Jump). You can trace the lit-fuse of pent-up '70s asshole aggression back and forth between the two camps, and there's a painful inevitability to watching the IRA's smackhead van driver realize the guy who kicked his ass the night before is rolling with the movie's would-be arms dealers.
The gun-toting characters that make up the film, meanwhile, largely feel like sketches. It's a stacked cast, and even when actors like Larson or Murphy are more or less playing their default screen personas, they're extremely watchable. But the only true standout is Copley, who imbues a Daffy Duck-like comic narcissism in the scummy and vain Vernon. Copley is regularly the best part of mediocre films, and here his twitchy line deliveries and pathetic come-ons establish him as the exceptional lowlife in a movie full of lowlifes. There's a particularly demented delight in watching as Vernon's gaudy new leisure suit becomes more and more ruined as the film ramps up the carnage. It's also refreshing to watch Armie Hammer ham it up in a blazer and turtleneck as a businessman just trying to make the best out of a really bad scene.
The problem "Free Fire" finds itself facing is the fact that there's just not that much to it. For such a short film, it's glacially paced, with most of the major plot developments arriving in its last minutes. On the other hand, this is a movie about ice-cold killers who are all bad shots, and it's supremely entertaining to watch the entire cast limp or crawl for cover as things get worse and worse. "Free Fire" is at its best when it leans hard into R-rated Looney Tunes mayhem—a quest for a ringing phone that ends in gasoline-soaked horror, a man driving a barely working truck over his hated adversary's head, the reveal of the abandoned factory's original purpose—instead of faux-Scorsese crime genre beats.
As a YouTube short, "Free Fire" would be a must-watch, but as a feature it leaves the viewer wanting a little more to chew on.
"Free Fire," directed by Ben Wheatley, is now playing.