One of the most frequently deployed Hollywood contrivances is how the good guys’ bullets always hit and instantly kill their targets, while the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn from inside the barn. Well, what happens when a movie is a shoot-’em-up populated entirely by bad guys?

“Free Fire” explores this nugget of an idea, developing its own set of darkly comic, nigh-absurdist contrivances as an arms deal inside an empty factory goes south, and the involved ne’er-do-wells prove to be anti-John Wicks, unable to make a kill shot when their lives depend on it. Their bullets graze or wound, nicking shoulders and skulls, hitting meat and not organs, leaving every participant wounded and cowering behind bits of scenery to reload, army-crawling through dust and broken glass for an advantageous tactical angle. Anyone else see the irony in a group of scumbags buying and selling guns, but showing blatant incompetence when it comes to using them?

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise,” “Kill List”) crafts a multi-hyphenated period-noir-crime-comedy that gets by on its verbal and visual cleverness, and feels like a Quentin Tarantino screenplay pared down to one-liners and action. As bullets and quips zing by, in the back of my head I heard Steve Buscemi’s “Reservoir Dogs” character Mr. Pink lamenting about how none of these twits is an expletive-deleted professional.

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Writing with frequent creative partner Amy Jump, Wheatley assembles a colorful cast of eccentric character actors, including Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, Cillian Murphy, Babou Ceesay and Jack Reynor. The movie is so bare-bones, it strips characters down to witty quips: “He was misdiagnosed as a child genius, and never got over it,” “I’m not dead, I’m just regrouping.” And as movies simmering in their own ironic detachment so often go, it’s about its technical achievements and subversions more than the people in it. The script is roughly three-quarters profanity and moaning, and the rest is the type of sagacious dialogue. If there’s anything resembling an emotion in the movie, it’s cynicism; take its most gruesomely violent scene, played for laughs because it features the satiric use of John Denver’s mushy easy-listening hit “Annie’s Song.”

Only Copley, the South African star of “District 9,” really stands out, playing a vain, meticulously groomed clown; we laugh at him because it’s funny to see his swanky leisure suit get bloody and dirty. When he’s nicked with a bullet, he overreacts: “It’s mostly the suit,” is the assessment of his wound. He’s the seller, and Murphy and Smiley are the Irish buyers. Larson, an Oscar winner for 2015’s “Room,” is friends of both parties – it’s clear Copley and Murphy are attracted to her. Hammer is the broker, a tall drink of water who smells nice, we learn, because he uses beard oil.

In their employ are lesser goons, goofballs and junkies and hotheads hired to drive the vans and schlep crates full of guns and ammo. On one side is a black eye from the night before, on the other, a set of scraped-up knuckles – call it foreshadowing for the inevitable. I liked how the playing field is leveled when all heck breaks loose, and everyone, from the hired help to the relative braintrust, is wounded and desperate; they’re all morons with bad aim.

I was amused by “Free Fire,” impressed by Wheatley’s creative exploitation of a single set piece, and his ability to nurture tension and deflate it with a few well-timed laughs. But ultimately, I was ambivalent, by turns engaged and disengaged. At least no one who was hit with a bullet flew backwards several yards through a plate-glass window, something we’ve seen a million-zillion times in bigger, dumber, less ambitious, even more cynical movies.

FILM REVIEW: ‘Free Fire’

2.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy

Director: Ben Wheatley

Run time: 90 minutes

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'Free Fire' movie review: Bullets and zingers fly in cynical shoot-'em-up by: Greezoo  published:

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