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Preston Barta

Violent, funny caper goes wrong in the best way

One of the most gratifying and contrasting cinematic detours for audiences is the chamber feature, a film most discernible by its focus on a small cast of characters, explored in a short period of time and hemmed in by a limited environment. Though it would seem to be a genre prone to shooting blanks, it's a surefire formula that works well for director Ben Wheatley.

Free Fire finds Wheatley -- who co-wrote and co-edited the film with his regular collaborator (and spouse) Amy Jump -- returning to the same era as his previous feature High-Rise. Like that '70s-set film, Free Fire is confined to one location. This time, instead of a tower block, we find our gang of career criminals (including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley) in a deserted warehouse in Boston negotiating a weapons purchase.

But what kind of Wheatley film would this be if the transaction went smoothly rather than going south in bloody, thunderous fashion?

After a truck full of the wrong assault rifles is shown to the buyers, accompanied by a personal beef between thugs Stevo (Sam Riley) and Harry (a very good Jack Reynor), the mix-up triggers an explosion of chaos and carnage to fill out the remaining hour of the film.

Free Fire was prompted in part by the infamous 1986 FBI shootout in Miami. During the thoroughly blotchy and uncinematic firefight, two serial bank robbers took on eight agents and inflicted far more injury and death than expected.

"Part of the report was that the FBI agents had to write down shot-by-shot what happened, including the casualties, where the bullets went and how many injuries there were," Wheatley said in an interview before the film's regional premiere at South by Southwest in Austin last month. "When I read that, I found the situation to be messy and horrible. It seemed as though no one could shoot straight and that they shot a lot for a long time."

This devastating event made Wheatley realize how Hollywood tends to show everyone as experts with guns.

"I thought there was something in this story -- a procedural thing about people in a gun battle in real time," Wheatley said.

Though all of the film's contemporary action takes place inside this warehouse, Free Fire fills out its space well and keep things moving at full tilt, never letting its audience lose sense of the characters or geography.

"Shooting in one area is easier in the respect that we didn't waste any time moving from place to place for location changes. However, because we shot in chronological order, it also made it harder, because if an issue were to occur and you don't catch it right away, you might not know about it until five weeks in," Wheatley said.

This particular filmmaking style required Wheatley and Jump to be meticulous and carefully plan the placement of every piece in their mad puzzle, down to using Minecraft for 3-D mapping to make sure everything was accounted for.

"When you read a script like this and see that it takes place in one warehouse, you think it's child's play," co-star Armie Hammer said. "The film so easily could have been boring, but the devil's in the details. [Wheatley] did all the heavy lifting for us and mapped everything out, allowing us to be more free with our roles."

Everyone in the stellar cast gets time to shine on screen. Whether it's the amount of times a certain character takes a bullet to the head without kicking the bucket or how many killer one-liners Sharlto Copley has as a shifty South African gun-runner named Vernon, Free Fire is locked and loaded with explosive wit.

"I love to improvise because it's like being completely in the head of the character," Copley said. "In the case with Vernon, who has a big mouth, I was able to spew out whatever popped in my head. But the way [Wheatley and Jump] edited it, they'd choose certain parts, cut it up and pieced it together to make it feel like one line. It's all about being in the moment and working with great talent."

Though it may be one of the most violent films to hit cinema this year, Free Fire is a lean, kickass flick made to highlight both the destructiveness and absurdity of guns, all while making you laugh until you're blue in the face.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.