Tuesday 4 April 2017
Directed by Ben Wheatley
UK cinema release print.
I usually find the films of Ben Wheatley... who along with co-writer Amy Jump has, perhaps unwittingly, become one of the most shining auteurs representing British cinema these days... well... usually a bit hit or miss. I’ve only seen four of his six cinematic features (and not a great deal of his TV work... only his Doctor Who episodes) and of those four, I loved the first two I saw... Kill List (reviewed here) and Sightseers (reviewed here)... but really didn’t rate High Rise (reviewed here) when I saw it at the London Film Festival back in 2015. So I approached his new film, Free Fire, with a certain amount of caution. Not least because the trailer didn’t really appeal to me all that much.
It does, however, have a lot of big name stars shooting at each other in this film... such as Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Noah Taylor and Michael Smiley... which is to be expected with this directors growing status in international cinema. People are going to want to work with him.
It would be true to say that on the level of the acting talent in this film, nobody does a bad job here. They all make believable characters and a certain sense of heightened, dramatic ‘realism’ is manufactured to serve the threads of black humour running through the piece. It’s a film that will pull you into an immersive experience in a very short time. That being said, although it’s a heck of a lot more entertaining than High Rise (for me at least), it was nowhere near the dizzying heights of the other two movies I mentioned in the opening paragraph. That being said, it’s an interesting experiment of a film in its premise and execution and, if it was for nothing other than that, then it’s to be applauded for going full on into the very limiting territory which the writers and director have chosen to explore here.
The film tells the story of an arms deal that goes sour and, apart from maybe the first ten minutes of the movie, it’s all set in an abandoned/disused factory/warehouse kind of environment. Now, the thing I didn’t realise until finding out the day after I saw it is that it’s set in Boston in 1978. The film is all shot in Wheatley’s home town of Brighton, UK, which is not all that much of a surprise actually, since the only external locations are a moving vehicle at night and a place just outside of the warehouse. No, what surprised the heck out of me after having already seen this is the fact that this movie is actually set in the 1970s.
Nothing about the style of dress or haircuts or anything else in this movie screamed 1970s at me and, I suspect, that this failure or inability on my part to register that it’s set in a historical time period, albeit one I grew up in, is endemic to me rather than anyone else. A fair few times in my life I have been called Mr. 70s by people who have never met each other at different periods of my life and so, I can only assume I have a blind spot when it comes to recent time periods I’ve lived through. That being said, it makes a little more sense now as to why people in the movie risk life and limb to get to the only phone in the place rather than whip out a mobile... which I never even thought of while I was watching. The phone design should have perhaps given it away but, in my minds eye, all people’s telephones still look like that so I didn’t make the association. I think dial phones should make a big comeback, to be honest. Of course, if any of the characters did have a mobile phone on them then the ‘experiment’ could not have worked in the same controlled environment that this movie has in the same way... so it’s obvious why Mr. Wheatley chose this period for this film. After all, can you imagine how something like the original Die Hard (reviewed here) might have played out if John McLane had a mobile phone on him?
The film is about, as I said, a gun deal that goes sour between the two parties buying and selling the guns and, right from the outset when the various people meet, Mr. Wheatley raises the tension by having them not get on very well at all. Far from it, in fact. Everything feels dangerous and the audience is left waiting for the one trigger that blows the gasket of the less than smooth running engine of this particular arms deal and causes everything to go wrong. It turns out that the back breaking camel’s straw is an incident that occurs off screen and which affected two of the characters from the night before this event takes place but, once these two characters, one from either of the side of the deal, both recognise each other... that’s when everything goes, as people say these days, pear shaped.
But it’s to the credit of Mr. Wheatley, Ms Jump and the cast of the film that the audience is already placed in a position where everything seems like a powder keg waiting to go off anyway. The characters do not like being around each other and they act, for the most part, like people who don’t expect an arms deal could go sour. So rather than go in polite, they spend a lot of their time trading insults with the ‘opposition’ and generally getting on each other’s nerves... not a great start to an equitable trade solution, to be sure.
The film, once the inevitable happens, becomes a movie comprising of all the cast members insulting and shooting at each other and just trying to find a way to survive the evening and get out of the environment they all find themselves trapped in. Nobody escapes a bullet and the characters are continually shot up and find themselves getting more damaged as the evening wears on. Everybody just wants to shoot everyone else and get themselves to a hospital... not to mention the presence of two snipers in the warehouse, who are an unexpected element to the majority of the characters (don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler... you’ll find that one out very early on in the proceedings).
All in all the film is noisy and has some nice moments in terms of dialogue but, for me and probably only for me, the film seemed less able to grab me than it may most people, I suspect. Anyone who knows me knows that I dislike gangland based or criminal POV films and, like most other films featuring these types of characters, I didn’t find one redeeming feature in pretty much anyone here. So that kinda takes the punch out of it for me because, once the shooting starts, I didn’t really mind who got shot and who made it out of the film alive. Horror films about bratty teenagers tend to throw up the same problem for me so... yeah, for the most part, if I don’t feel like I could spend an hour of pub time with a character then I’m probably not going to care what happens to that person.
It is, however, a fascinating film to watch on a technical level and Wheatley manages to get some nice shot set ups with various planes of space slicing up the screen in some places. There’s also a nice ‘John Denver’ moment too but, you know, I don’t want to get into pseudo-spoiler territory here. It must have been a nightmare to film in some ways... but probably a lot easier in others. I’ve absolutely no idea if this is the case but it struck me very early on that... with the amount of damage that both the characters and, perhaps more importantly, the set/environment they are inhabiting is taking... this thing must have been, surely, shot in sequence (apart from maybe the first ten minutes of the movie). Otherwise it would have been a complete nightmare with rebuilds to already damaged sections of the set and, believe me, the warehouse takes a lot of damage as the film progresses. I wouldn’t be surprised, too, if all of the actors would have all been on the set more or less simultaneously for about 90% of the time... so it must have made for a pretty interesting shoot. I’m guessing, of course, but I really can’t see how it could have been done any other way.
Ultimately, Free Fire is not really my cup of tea but I don’t think that’s going to be the case for most audience members and I think this will go on to become a well loved movie. I think history will treat this kindly and I think, although I would probably never watch this again myself, that I would recommend this film to a fair amount of people as I genuinely think most of them would enjoy it far more than I did. So there you go... catch it while it’s at the cinema because it’s all about guns and noise and shouting and you need the nice speakers for that. And, yes... I am now back on track in terms of waiting to see what this director does next. He’s a bit hard to predict and that can only be a good thing.