As Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated Free Fire awaits release, Getintothis’ Del Pike enjoys a sneak preview at FACT and a Q&A with the man himself.
Ben Wheatley has proved himself to be as unpredictable a director as can be found, leaping from genre to genre like Spring Heeled Jack.
We have seen gallows humour In Kill List and Sightseers, rural horror in A Field in England and in 2016 we saw him taking on heavyweight fantasist J.G.Ballard with his big budget/ all star High Rise. Free Fire may be his most surprising venture yet.
Set in a disused factory in Boston (actually an old print works in Brighton), the plot is almost too simple for Wheatley. A group of hapless chancers, including Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley are intent on securing a van load of rifles from dodgy arms dealer, Vern (Sharlto Copley). When a small-scale altercation between Riley’s junkie, Stevo and Vern’s driver Harry (Jack Reynor) escalates beyond control, all hell is let loose and bullets start flying. This is pretty much the foundation for the rest of the film, one long bloody shoot-out.
A Q and A with Wheatley and Smiley at FACT at this preview screening revealed that this was not meant to be a straight to video style bullet fest. Wheatley explained, with subliminal reference to the likes of Man of Steel and Avengers Assemble that he was sick of seeing his beloved action movies at the multiplex, reduced to images of buildings being CGI’d to rubble by giant mechanical monsters. His preferences lie in the simplicity of films like Assault on Precinct 13 with low key face to face combat, and this is what he was trying to create here. In the main, he succeeds.
As the free fire starts, gunshots and ricochets are pin sharp and deafening and gradually become muffled as the character’s ear drums take a mullering, but between the maelstrom is sharp wit, mainly due to the writing talents of Wheatley’s wife and co-writer, Amy Jump.
Comparisons with Tarantino are inevitable, particularly in Reservoir Dogs due to its almost singular setting of a disused factory. There are more parallels to be found throughout, but whilst this may not have the cool factor of Tarantino’s debut (although very funny) it is a hell of a lot more entertaining than the disappointing The Hateful Eight. This is the kind of movie that Tarantino should be making now.
Despite all this, Wheatley fans may be disappointed in the lack of apparent intellectualism. That he found much inspiration from Evil Dead 2, tells us a lot about his fanboy stance, and maybe he should be allowed a balls-out gun party every now and then, but there is little to get your teeth into here bar the wise cracks and shooting. It is difficult to engage with characters on any higher level due to the action kicking in almost immediately, and this was pointed out to Wheatley in the Q&A. Cillian Murphy’s character, Chris is full of Irish charm, Brie Larson’s Justine holds her own as the only woman in the film and Copley’s Vern is hilarious as a “funny” white South African, but any subtleties turn to yelled obscenities once the safety catches are off.
If pushed hard enough students will lap this up with its stock trade in quotable lines and cartoon violence, much like a grown-up game of cowboys and Indians where it takes forever to die despite multiple dead eye shots. The poster design is clearly aimed at that market. The 70s outfits and John Denver soundtrack all add to that quirky retro feel of Tarantino’s earlier work and this becomes a real throwback to that era of accessible QT related action movies of the early 90s (Natural Born Killers, True Romance, Killing Zoe). It might be harder to mine for that same level of cinema cultdom in the Netflix age, but if any film can do it then Free Fire is the one.
As suspected Wheatley comes across in the flesh as an amiable film fan, enjoying living out his fantasies in the real world of filmmaking. Working with Martin Scorsese on Free Fire (Executive Producer) is clearly a career high point for him, following on from his appreciation of Wheatley’s Kill List he offered his services primarily as a script adviser. Wheatley seems unphased by the fact that he has the world at his feet and is making out with major Hollywood players. It is fair to say, he still looks like a Pot Noodle and X Box kind of guy rather than the swimming pool and flunkies type. He has suggested that he would maybe try out some sci-fi next time (his guilty pleasure movie is revealed tonight as Zardoz), with the nonchalance of a kid in a video store. It is this almost nomadic wandering from aisle to aisle that makes Wheatley so appealing and his work, however uneven, is always a welcome event.
Free Fire is on general release on March 31.