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Guilty pleasures don't come any guiltier than 'Free Fire'

"Free Fire" is, at long last, the perfect illustration of the phrase "guilty pleasure." It is, to me and so many others, immensely pleasurable--ridiculous, hilarious, loud absurd, exciting. But because there have always been people in my life since childhood advocating propriety, decency and law and order, I found it hard to have all that enjoyment without feeling a guilt pang or six.

If you look up the phrase "guilty pleasure" on the Internet, you find that somebody used it in the New York Times all the way back in 1860. My first encounter with it was in 1976 when the great Donald Barthelme, one of the late 20th centuries most extraordinary writers, used it as the title of a collection of his short pieces, thereby designating the very idea of "guilty pleasure" as just about the hippest and coolest kind of pleasure you can have (which is what Barthelme's work often was at the time.)

That's why one reason the phrase "guilty pleasure" started appearing everywhere in the 1990s.

And now exemplifying it forever in your local megaplex (and after that digitally into eternity) we have Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire," which is about some of the dumbest gun-toting jerks alive who contrive to do a gun deal in a deserted warehouse.

The time is 1976. The place is Boston. The idea is that a large sum of money will be exchanged for a whole lot of M-16's. But that's not the kind of gun that is filling up an entire van that pulls up. Those are AR70s. You don't have to know succotash about guns believe me. All you need to know is that they're different.

That's the first problem that shows up in this business transaction set up by some of the dumbest people in all of creation. Other problems appear in short order. One of the 16 assembled guys took umbrage the night before that another belted his sister in the chops. There are some things brothers don't let slide, you know?

Things go downhill quickly and the first shot is fired.

For the next hour or so, the movie becomes nothing but a gunfight taking place in real time in which no one seems any good at hitting a target so that the majority of wounds that are suffered are in shoulders or legs or buttocks or other non-essential accretions of soft tissue.

The principals thereby continue to gimp or slither around and keep on shooting. In one of the movie's high points, one of the gun-toting idiots actually admits to not knowing which side he's on.

The supply of bullets seems, of course, to be close to infinite so that's not a problem. All those AR70's are not used in quantity during the course of things but throughout the movie you know jolly well they aren't just decoration either.

Our view of thugs and criminals has been de-romanticized ever since the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" and Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." We are now perfectly willing to entertain the notion that a warehouse full of criminals trying to get a gun deal done may be a building full of some of the dumbest and most dispensable members of society.

Director Ben Wheatleigh is a fascinating Brit previously best known for "High Rise." (See the piece in Sunday's paper which includes an interview.) That means that along with the Coens and Tarantino it will be close to impossible not to also remember early films by Madonna's ex-husband Guy Ritchie (notably "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels").

Because so much of the dialogue is delivered by those with thick cockney, Irish or South African accents, you'll have trouble understanding at least 25 percent of the lines, but in this movie it doesn't matter. Dialogue isn't really the point. If you lose a line or two, no sweat. People will be shooting again in seconds. It's the hour-long rain of bullets that counts.

The dialogue you can hear is full of mordant humor--the kind of stuff that dimwit jokester thugs might say when they're trapped in a warehouse full of bullets that may have their names on them.

Just in case you're wondering whether pop music will play a role in all of this (remember Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" and Michael Madsen in "Reservoir Dogs"), blatant absurdity doesn't get any thicker than a movie like this in which one of the assembled dolts has a deep affection for John Denver's "Country Roads." So it plays often while gunfire is going on and soft, non-essential body parts are being ripped open.

Until, of course, a miscellaneous head shot lands dead center in a forehead or a bullet to the heart or some other mortal organ happens by accident.

If you think, for instance, about what Steven Spielberg tried to do in the D-Day scenes of "Saving Private Ryan," this movie may strike you as a devil's parody of all cinematic decency. Which, of course, only increases the idea of fantasy moral abdication as a "pleasure" factor.

Not all of the assembled morons here are hopeless knuckleheads. Armie Hammer plays a relatively civilized type who has to spend his working life with these cretins. Brie Larson--an Oscar-winner and a game actress you have to admit--plays the requisite woman in the piece. When Pauline Kael used an Italian movie poster to title one of her books "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" she was reducing pulp movies to their essence. Expect no "Kiss Kiss" here. It's just wall to wall "Bang Bang."

What you've got here is quite the most outrageous movie to have parked at your local megaplex in a long time.

It is highly recommended to all lovers of B-cinema--except of course, for those sufficiently well-raised to be proper and socially responsible citizens who prefer to see others of their ilk simulating social norms.

For them, the three and a half star rating here should be reduced by two and a half stars.

For the rest of us, feelings of social guilt not only wait, they beckon.


"Free Fire"

Three and a half stars out of four

Starring: Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy and Patrick Bergin

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: R for strong and constant violence, pervasive language, sexual references and drugs

Running time: 90 minutes

The lowdown: An illicit gun-deal goes south in a deserted warehouse leading to a gun battle in real time for the rest of the film.

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