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In a recent interview to promote his shoot-'em-up movie "Free Fire," director Ben Wheatley says he mapped out the movie's main location, an abandoned factory warehouse on the Boston docks, using the video game Minecraft.

That's just one of the games being played in this offbeat movie, a volatile comedy-drama that wants to be taken seriously up to the moment that it doesn't.

Set in Boston in 1978 — though that's never clearly stated, and viewers have to go by visual clues like license plates and lapel widths — the story centers on an illegal deal being made in a dockside location. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have cash to buy M-16s to take back to their comrades in Ireland. Loudmouth Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his numbers-crunching partner, Martin (Babou Ceesay), have the guns.

A smooth salesman, Ord (Armie Hammer), is representing Vernon's interests, while the cool-headed Justine (Brie Larson) is brokering for the Irish. There's tension in the air, but the deal seems to be going smoothly — until one of Vernon's guys, Harry (Jack Reynor), sees that the driver Frank hired, a junkie named Stevo (Sam Riley), is the same guy who dated Harry's cousin and beat her up pretty badly.

Fists are flying, and it's not long until the bullets are, too. Some people get hit and limp to cover as an old-fashioned shootout ensues. Joining the fracas are two snipers (Patrick Bergin and Mark Monero) whose allegiances are unknown.

Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump, who is also his co-writer and co-editor, also made the weirdly dystopian "High-Rise," but this effort is much simpler and more straightforward. It bears some resemblance to the warehouse showdown in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," and the dialogue is just as sharp and smart. (My favorite is Justine's one-sentence description of the slimy Vernon: "He was misdiagnosed as a child genius, and he never got over it.") But the staging, particularly the geography of the running gun battle, is wickedly clever and original.

The burning question that remains after watching "Free Fire" is what the point of it is. About midway through, Wheatley and Jump seem to be angling for some grand metaphor about the futility of war. But they soon shy away from such deep interpretations with an ending that relegates it to just another gangster story.

Twitter: @moviecricket —


'Free Fire'

An illegal gun deal goes bad in this offbeat gangster tale.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, April 21.

Rating • R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drug use.

Running time • 90 minutes.

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