Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley in Free Fire (Kerry Brown/A24)

At an abandoned factory in 1978 Boston, a black market arms deal goes horribly awry, pitting the two factions of the deal against each other in a shoot-’em-up that is as hilarious as it is bloody. On one side, there are the Irish gangsters, headed by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), who are looking to buy enough M-16s to arm a small army (presumably the IRA). The sellers of the weapons are a South African man named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his business partner, Martin (Babou Ceesay). Setting the transaction up are the mysterious Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), the lone female in this man-fest. As an action-comedy, Free Fire tilts more towards silly than action. Drama is nowhere to be found on this dial. Despite such a simple plot, the witty banter and the creative uses of violence are what make Ben Wheatley’s little indie action flick fire away.

Both sides have brought along hired goons to drive the vans and move the weight: Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) on Chris’s side, Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) accompanying Vernon’s. All are local lowlifes who, as it turns out, have preexisting beefs with each other. Within 10 or so minutes, shots start firing, and during the rest of the film, the two sides mess each other up with guns, rifles, crowbars, and gasoline canisters. Some of the players are even able to fit in some drug use and a cigarette break in the middle of it all.

I probably shouldn’t go all Reservoir Dogs because Free Fire isn’t that great a film, but it definitely borrows from early Tarantino (the ’70s aesthetic, the ultraviolence paired with witty dialogue). But this movie also reminds me of Reservoir Dogs in that it comes to us during a time when big-budget action films have gotten so bloated that it’s refreshing to those of us who don’t necessarily want to see what’s playing at the multiplex. The slick dialogue, soundtrack, and editing, reminiscent of Scorsese (one of the executive producers), serve as a reminder that there are filmmakers out there who appreciate the bare bones approach.

While Free Fire doesn’t have any big-name actors (although Larson is on her way to being a household name once she joins the Marvel machine), the cast couldn’t have been any more handpicked. Who knew Hammer could be so funny? His career has been a series of missteps ever since his big break in The Social Network. Playing Ord, the mercenary who puts the deal together, he’s sporting a bushy beard, wearing a ridiculous blue blazer and turtleneck sweater like he’s headed straight to the local disco. Whereas the Boston street toughs call each other “cocksucker” or tell each other to go “f— themselves,” Ord makes more thought-out, biting insults. Even though there is nothing explicit in the dialogue about Ord, it’s clear he’s the only one who’s ever seen some action, making him the deadliest of the pack. He’s so aloof and burned out, confident that he could kill everyone in the room and leave without a scratch, that he chooses to wait on the sidelines, smoking a joint and bartering with Vernon to increase his payment before he takes another shot at the other side.

Murphy has proven time and again he can do pretty much everything. Leading man, villain, or even in small roles, he’s seemingly versatile without ever really changing a thing about himself. If you doubt me, watch the series Peaking Blinders. Chris, the Irishman who has come to the States to pick up M-16s for a bit of bad business back home, is no better than any of these thugs, yet Murphy plays his character with so much charisma that he’s the one in the firefight we can’t help but root for.

Copley has always been hit or miss, but here he is perfectly cast as Vernon, the sleazy and really weird South African small-time criminal. The man is clearly not as distinguished as he makes himself out to be. Vernon is so gross, and Copley is a great fit in the role, playing the guy you loathe with so much relish you kind of end up liking him.

Both Chris and Vernon are sweet on Larson’s Justine. To have a love triangle right in the middle of the shoot-out provides a little extra drama (as you’ll see, everyone ends up having a reason to shoot at each other). While Justine’s flirtations with Chris veer toward romantic comedy territory, Larson is given the least to do in the extravaganza. As the only female, the 1978 gender politics are still iffy on whether or not the men are allowed to shoot the lady, which the film acknowledges with a wink. But make no mistake, Justine gets plenty of shots of her own.

Inventive and full of laughs and with its clever nods to the late ’70s time period (everyone’s look is spot-on), Free Fire is more like a night at the theater watching a one-act play than some convoluted bombast or yet another display of Michael Bay’s testosterone.

Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Amy Jump and Wheatley
Released by A24
UK/France. 90 min Rated R
With Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Enzo Cilenti