The career of director Ben Wheatley continues to be a softly deflating disappointment. I adore his second and third features, 2011's Kill List and 2012's Sightseers, enough that I'll probably never stop handing out free passes to him, but his 2013 A Field in England was a bit of a disappointment, and 2015's High-Rise was a straight-up mistake. And now we arrive at his sixth feature overall, the dark action-comedy Free Fire, and I'm very sorry to say that it's the first of his films that's finally rounded the corner to "bad".

Points for accuracy in labeling, though. Free Fire is about the proverbial arms deal gone bad, and the eruption of gunfire that happens when tensions finally get too high, and that is all it's about. IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), accompanied by hired goons Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) are meeting South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), accompanied by his own goons Martin (Babou Ceesay), Gordon (Noah Taylor), and Harry (Jack Reynor). Facilitating this meeting is Justine (Brie Larson), an American, and her associate Ord (Armie Hammer). The place is a warehouse in Boston, the year is 1978. Stevo and Harry have just the day prior had a nasty encounter (Harry beat up Stevo for assaulting Harry's cousin), and this proves to be exactly the lit match that this powder keg of mutual distrust didn't need.

The film that results has the distinct feeling of an exercise, or a math problem: with 10 (shortly to be 12) characters divided into not fewer than three groups, how many different stand-offs can be orchestrated in 90 minutes? And I will say that Wheatley and his perennial co-writer, Amy Jump, have assembled a mechanically sound and structurally snug piece of clockwork, as far as running through that exercise goes. There's something slightly audacious about taking such a reliably formulaic scene as "one trigger-happy hothead turns a gun deal into a free-for-all bloodbath", and turning it into an entire 90-minute feature, with little in the way of context for who any of these people are or what they're doing here besides taking place in a splendid orgy of violence.

Once that's established as the operating mood of the evening, though, Wheatley and Jump more or less run out of ideas. Or perhaps they simply didn't care to have more ideas than that. The result is a movie that, until it finally goes all the way over the top for its last ten minutes, feels like any given 15-minute segment could have been copied and pasted from any other 15-minute segment. Guns are fired, people huddle behind structures, wildly quippy dialogue is spouted, and there's a death that's supposed to "escalate" things. Though given the lack of distinguishing characteristics provided to the characters (Justine is by a significant margin the most differentiated figure in the lot, and that's at least 50% because she's the only woman we ever see onscreen), that escalation doesn't really feel like much. We don't have a particular reason to care about any of these people, so their deaths feel rather more like mile markers than consequential dramatic moments.

That's no slight on the cast, who are remarkably good at personalising (if not quite fleshing out) the smudgy figures that the screenplay has provided them with. When even as reliably annoying and off-putting a presence as Sharlto Copley can be induced to give a performance whose manic energies are channeled in service to the film rather than disrupting it, it's clear that there must have been something special happening on that set. And the actually good actors are absolutely delightful: Larson is great as a no-nonsense badass, and seeing her snarl and glare her way through the role of a violent tough guy is a deeply welcome corrective in the same calendar year that her drab, joyless role in Kong: Skull Island limped its way through theaters. Some people - Cilenti and Murphy most notably - even manage to scrounge up some erstwhile sensitive emotion to give a sense of humanity to the edges of what is generally not any kind of emotionally resonant piece of cinema.

So it's not a washout. Hell, it's not even bad as an action extravaganza; Wheatley's staging isn't terrifically complex or interesting or anything else, and the sets aren't visually distinctive enough for it to be immediately obvious where in space any given shootout takes place, but the hectic pacing of the gun battles works on the film's behalf. It's not a slow movie, at least, though it's still a little bit boring through sheer lack of variety. The gunplay comes fast and loud, and that is at a certain point the only thing it needs to do.

But "needs to do" is not "could have done", and I dearly wish that Free Fire had put in some effort to be more inventive in its staging of gun battles. If only so that the 90 minutes wouldn't have felt so redundant. A little more visual flair would have possibly been all that was needed to salvage the whole thing - leave the flat-footed dialogue and the hugely inconsistent sense of humor (when the film lets loose with black comedy, it's honestly pretty great, and I'm quite confused why there's not more of that); leave the painfully on-the-nose ironic soundtrack choices, including multiple appearances of John Denver ("Annie's Song" shows up twice just by itself). Definitely leave the original score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, because it's pretty great, sly and propulsive; and might as leave Emma Fryer's exhaustive, loving costume designs, because even if Free Fire makes absolutely no good use out of its '70s setting, at least it sure as hell looks the part.

None of those problems are the problem: the problem is that it's just the same damn thing over and over until enough people have died that something else needs to change. Free Fire is a monotonous damn movie, and while I'm sure that a 90-minute firefight includes monotony among its characteristics, there was no need to make an entire feature-length film to demonstrate that fact. Both as a work of style and as a piece of screenwriting, Free Fire is just plain redundant, and it's horribly disappointing to see Wheatley and Jump end up idling, when gonzo, grotesque creativity has been such a reliable strength of theirs.