Sometime in the 1970s in America, three (or four) factions of crooks of different stripes meet in a disused factory – ‘whatever they make, nobody wants any more’, which sets up a witty punchline – to exchange a case of cash for a cache of guns. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) appear to be from the IRA, though they’ve dragged in a couple of locals – Stevo (Sam Riley), Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) – to do the lifting and driving. Seth Efrican showoff Vern (Sharlto Copley) is allied with ex-Panther Martin (Babou Ceesay), and has Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) as backup. While the meet is expedited by bearded ‘too handsome to get shot’ middle-man Ord (Armie Hammer), who models a pullover and sports jacket look that wouldn’t shame Richard Chamberlain, and In It For Myself Justine (Brie Larson). Someone has also called in freelance hitters Howie (Patrick Bergin) and Jimmy (Mark Monero) to hide in the eaves with rifles.
All the factions are splintered since no one really gets on with all of their partners, and anyone in anything like a position of authority has made really poor hiring decisions – a prior incident involving short-fused Harry’s cousin and black-eye-sporting druggie Stevo leads to an escalating altercation, and then guns are pulled and fired so everyone winds up crawling around on the dirty floor (broken glass and discarded needles are a feature) with minor or major wounds (all these crooks have the marksmanship skills of Imperial Storm Troopers and are seemingly not capable of a clean killshot even at close range) still arguing with each other over the cash, the guns, who said who what to whom, how to get out of this and anything else that comes to mind.
Ben Wheatley – who co-scripted with his usual collaborator Amy Jump – ventures further from his field in England for this playful slice of action-exploitation, though totemic Michael Smiley is in the crew along with a varied bunch of character actors from around the world. It draws a little on the patter-and-gunplay stylings of early Tarantino, but also has a strange kinship to that recent spate of pictures (Unknown is one) in which groups of folks are cooped up in stage-like locales and have away at each other in an elimination contest without really knowing why or to what end. Crime, politics and business are evoked, but this is really a comedy of manners punctuated by gunshots – and, later, more inventive modes of warfare, including improvised napalm and the crushing wheels of an overladen van going round in circles.
It’s important that none of these people are nice or likeable, and it’s even stressed that the conventionally handsome Hammer (or heroine-look Larsen) aren’t any more morally worthwhile than the lowlifes and killers they’ve brought together – but there are flashes of feeling as human connections lead to disaster, even though there’s a cynical undercurrent in that the snipers would probably have efficiently murdered everyone even if the fight hadn’t broken out. With great use of less familiar soundtrack choices than usual and an array of well-cast players relishing the dialogue, this is Wheatley’s second 70s trip in a row – and there are obvious parallels between the descent into savagery in High-Rise and the far more precipitous fall into a skirmish of mutually assured destruction here. Somehow, though, such stories of mutually assured destruction resonate in the current climate.