Sunday 16 April 2017

Cinema Trips:
Free Fire
(Ben Wheatley, 2017)

In spite of all the plaudits director Ben Wheatley has received since his disturbing kitchen sink/crime/horror mash-up ‘Kill List’ first put his name on people’s lips in 2011, I must admit that I felt quite sorry for him following the release of ‘High Rise’ last year.

That film was his most ambitious and high profile project to date by quite some distance, and, suffice to say, many in the world of what I suppose I’ll have to take to grit my teeth and call “alternative culture” were on tenterhooks at the thought of a director like Wheatley helming a relatively big budget take on one of J.G. Ballard’s most uncompromising novels. But, as the reviews began to trickle in, enthusiasm (on my part at least) swiftly began to wane.

Having your big break-out movie savaged by mainstream critics who have missed the point or were predisposed to hate it is one thing - but imagine how Wheatley must have felt, clicking on links as they popped up in his feed and reading a succession of thoughtful, well-informed writers and bloggers presaging their articles by declaring their earnest admiration both for Ballard’s book and for Wheatley’s earlier films… then going on to regretfully express their opinion that he actually seemed to have made a bit of a hash of it.

I mean, that’s got to hurt pretty hard – especially when working in a segment of the film industry that still relies largely upon critical adulation and word of mouth to push punters through the gates.

After such a setback, one might have reasonably expected Wheatley to retreat into the shadows and spend some time licking his wounds, like previous contenders Richard Stanley or Neil Marshall before him. But, thankfully, our boy also seems keen to cultivate a reputation as one of the most determinedly prolific filmmakers around, and, though he doesn’t quite crank ‘em out as relentlessly as, say, Takashi Miike (which is probably for the best), he’s nonetheless back in cinemas, less than a year after ‘High Rise’ crashed and burned, with ‘Free Fire’.

And, by god, it’s a knock-out. The cinematic equivalent of straight jaw punch, seemingly designed to to instantly obliterate memories of his previous project’s over-reach and indulgence from the minds of potential future backers – which thankfully makes it a pretty great time for us as viewers, too.

If there is one overriding concern that can be seen to have emerged from Wheatley’s work to date, it is a fascination with the ugly results what occur when quote-unquote “tough guys” (violent or ego-driven men of one kind or another) are pushed into situations way behind their control, often in confined and treacherous environments; a kind of anti-Hawksian dynamic that sees the “men on the scene” heroism of the traditional genre movie uncomfortably shattered into a million pieces.

This thread can easily be traced through ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ (2013) and ‘High Rise’, and we can perhaps speculate that what most appealed to the director when conceiving ‘Free Fire’ was the chance to spend an entire movie taking this notion to joyously ridiculous new extremes – with “joyous” perhaps being the operative word.

The first thing to get out of the way here then is to make clear that, where previous Wheatley films have tended to be somewhat dour, unsettling experiences, their humour arising from toxic social awkwardness and their tone black in the extreme, ‘Free Fire’ by contrast represents perhaps the first time the director has dropped his patina of "seriousness" and delivered more of a MOVIE than a FILM, abandoning his exploration of aberrant psychology and grim social realism to instead reward his viewers with a guilt-free thrill ride of laughs, shocks and lovingly reiterated genre clichés – a fun flick in other words, if admittedly one predicated almost entirely upon mindless violence and the wanton infliction of pain… but, we’ll get to that.

Very much a ‘high concept’ joint as far as action/crime movies go, the set-up for ‘Free Fire’, in case you’ve not read about it elsewhere, goes as follows:

In the seemingly arbitrary setting of Boston, 1978, a pair of Irish Republican fighters, along with their American street punk accomplices, arrive at an abandoned dockside factory to meet with an eccentric white South African arms dealer, his ex-Black Panther partner and their own additional muscle. The ‘fixer’ who brokered the deal is also present, as is the pretty girl who initially put the various parties in touch (because hey, it’s a movie).

The meeting is tense to say the least. The assorted bad-asses do not get along too well, and trash talk and dick-swinging are just barely kept in check. Certain elements of the deal are not exactly what the Irish agreed upon, but nonetheless, ten crates of assault rifles are about to change hands, and the ex-Panther guy is counting the money.

We’re maybe twenty minutes or so into the movie by this point, when it becomes clear that one of the arms dealer’s driver/loader back up guys has a serious personal beef with one of the Irish’s local hired punks. Attempts to resolve this do not go well, and, before long, the shooting starts.

About seventy minutes later, the shooting ends.

Filling the interim is a single, real time, one-location action scene that I for one thought was a pretty extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but please don’t just take my word for it – if you think this whole business sounds like your idea of a good time, pick up a ticket to your nearest screening, and I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.

I’ve already read some reviews criticising ‘Free Fire’ as a characterless technical exercise, but to be honest I think such an accusation is way off target. True, we don’t get a lot of back story to fill us in on the participants’ lives outside of this single night of carnage, but neither do we need any. This is a minimal, self-contained action movie, and thus what Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump wisely give us is minimal, self-contained action movie characterisation, of the best possible kind.

We may not get any explanatory monologues or heart-string tugging childhood flashbacks (thank god), but, in the grand tradition of directors like Hawks and Siegel, we learn a huge amount about these characters simply through their body language and the way they relate to each other, as we find ourselves sizing them up as if we were a stranger blundering into the room, trying to figure who to stand behind and who to keep well away from.

Naturally, it is the actors who must carry the weight of putting these characterisations across, and the cast – comprising a great number of vaguely familiar people who have no doubt done sterling work in modern movies I never bothered to watch – do it absolutely beautifully. Just great ensemble stuff all round.

Surprisingly for a movie so entirely concerned with action, ‘Free Fire’ is in fact an extremely talky film (even if 30% of words spoken are probably either ‘fuck’ or ‘aargh’), somehow managing to allow its characters to speak and interact throughout, even as they are in the process of trying to inflict dreadful violence upon each other, making the film feel at times like some strange variant on the perennial ‘Old Dark House’ formula wherein everyone is continuously letting rip with high calibre weaponry.

I don’t know if I made it clear in my earlier synopsis that ‘Free Fire’ is as much a comedy as it is an action movie, but, well, it is, and it’s an extremely good comedy at that, with these exaggerated, barely believable tough guys bouncing off each other like champs, as Wheatley & Jump’s somewhat glib, wise-cracking dialogue prompts more genuine laughs and post-screening quote-offs than any film I’ve seen in recent memory.

(As the most broadly comic participant in the shooting match, Sharlto Copley as Vernon – the South African – proves particularly good value, coming on like a cross between Maurizio Merli in an Italian poliziotteschi and Will Ferrell in ‘Anchorman’, as the other characters’ wordlessly contemptuous “is this guy for real?!” responses to his clumsy antics provide a constant source of amusement.)

As the shooting begins, viewers will naturally find themselves weighing up the chances of the different characters, mentally placing their bets on who they expect to go down first, who they expect to be the last (wo?)man standing, and so on. But Wheatley’s masterstroke in ‘Free Fire’ I think comes from his rejection of the predictable, slasher style “picked off one by one” approach that could have seen the movie degenerate into a coldly mechanical multi-player death-match.

Instead, every one of the eight or nine major characters manages to stay alive until the gun fight’s final act, keeping all of them ‘in play’ even as they accumulate increasingly debilitating combinations of flesh wounds and limb damage, meaning we are eventually treated to the sight of the bullet-riddled combatants hobbling and dragging themselves across the increasingly battle-damaged sets, lapsing into occasional bouts of unconsciousness before an overload of pain and adrenalin propels them forward, increasingly unhinged, toward the resolution of their own sorry personal vendettas. This gradual collapse into entropy adds a sense of Godot-esque absurdity to proceedings that, needless to say, Wheatley absolutely relishes as things take on an air of desperate, baroque madness – a zero sum game as blackly pathetic as anything in his previous films.

Alongside all this, it almost goes without saying that ‘Free Fire’ is an astonishing achievement from a technical standpoint – a total master class in good action direction, fight choreography and editing, as Wheatley succeeds in cutting between the activities of up to ten independently motivated characters occupying different positions within the same cluttered set, keeping things coherent, suspenseful, gripping and visceral at all times, never bludgeoning us into insensibility the way many contemporary action directors tend to, and only allowing moments of chaos to temporarily break through when they represent the confused POV of characters for whom events are simply moving too fast to take in.

Given that the bulk of the film represents a single, real time sequence shot over the course of what I’d imagine must have been many weeks, simply maintaining continuity through different shots must have been a Herculean task, requiring the filmmakers to keep track not only of the locations and sight-lines of all the characters in relation to each other, but also of the spread of props, cover, weapons, ammunition and so forth across the set, not to mention the ever-multiplying injuries and damage to clothes, etc etc. I mean, seventy solid minutes of fight scene must have been a tough gig for all concerned, but I think the efforts of the rarely heralded continuity staff deserve a particular round of applause on this one.

I realise that official ‘making of..’ featurettes for contemporary films are generally dull as ditch water, but I would genuine love to find out about how they went about making the technical side of ‘Free Fire’ work as well as it does, and look forward to watching any such material available when I purchase the film on blu-ray – as I inevitably will, on the very day it is released more than likely.

In fact, it is difficult for me to fully express the extent to which I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. I genuinely think it is one of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

If I found any fault with the film, it arose mainly from the occasionally shaky application of the period setting; some of the dialogue and reactions assigned to Brie Larson's character in particular seem decidedly contemporary, and the Tarantino-esque 'needle drop' soundtrack also gets a bit heavy handed in places (it's hard not to cringe for instance when some Ayler-esque free jazz bursts in to accompany a sequence in which the film's only black character goes on the rampage).

As a marriage between the pure visual kineticism of a good action movie and the thespian chops of a good, multi-hander stage play though, ‘Free Fire’ works brilliantly, and if auteurists or future thesis-writers – ever sniffy about the idea of films actually being fun - may not wish it to be considered as a contender for Wheatley’s best film with regard to the realisation of his own personal vision and so forth, I nonetheless foresee it remaining my own favourite amongst his movies, by quite some distance and for quite some time to come.

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