Verbal parries trump bullets in ‘Free Fire’

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‘Free Fire,” the latest cinematic gut-punch from Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”), gets off to a retrotastic start, with a high-energy credits sequence composed of a fat ’70s-era font and a punchy track from the Boston punk band the Real Kids.

Wheatley’s chief influence in a film turns out to be little more than a clever stunt, a one-room bullet ballet that plays like “The Hateful Eight” with widah ahs. A real-time exercise in witty dialogue, cartoonish violence and aim just bad enough to leave its protagonists bloodied but alive through most of its swift duration, “Free Fire” feels like a left-handed project from a filmmaker whose gifts for staging, framing and pacing are on full display but feel ultimately wasted in a glib, down-and-dirty bagatelle.

As the film opens, Chris and Frank, IRA gunrunners played by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, respectively, are sitting in a car with a go-between named Justine (Brie Larson), waiting for Ord (Armie Hammer), a frontman for a South African arms dealer named Vern (Sharlto Copley). Decked out in a suave turtleneck and heaps of facial hair, Hammer’s Ord dazzles the group with erudite commentary as he takes them to an abandoned warehouse where the deal is supposed to go down.

Co-written by Wheatley with his wife, Amy Jump, “Free Fire” is full of stinging verbal parries and thrusts, but eventually the dialogue gives way simply to the sound of bullets flying with deranged desperation. It’s no surprise when one of the characters admits that he’s forgotten what side he’s on.

That could also be said of the viewers, who, as “Free Fire” becomes more monotonously depraved, may find themselves caring less and less about who lives and who dies.