Thursday, April 06, 2017
Let’s start by shooting the elephant in the room. And why not, since everything the fuck else gets shot in Ben Wheatley’s new film? ‘Free Fire’ is a technical exercise and nothing more. It’s an experiment in the spatial possibilities of a single location utilised to its maximum. It’s the work of a filmmaker, in thrall to every cool crime flick made in the Seventies, wondering how long he can drag out the shoot-out for. For almost the entire movie, it turns out.
As a narrative, ‘Free Fire’ can be summarised in less than twenty words: various crims converge on a warehouse to do an arms deal; everything goes tits up; gunplay ensues. Sure, I could pad that out to tell you who the characters are and who they’re played by, but that wouldn’t get us past the fact that they’re all ciphers, so let’s just think of them at the One With The Bad Sooth Ifrikaan Accent, the Moody Oirish One, the Snivelling Little Weasel and the Wiseass Douchebag whose mutual antipathy prompts the conflagration, the Too Cool For School One, and the Token Chick. That’s not me being sexist, by the way. Brie Larson’s character is basically referred to as a “chick” or a “bird” and only the actress’s natural screen presence allows for any characterisation beyond that.
As a crime drama or thriller, ‘Free Fire’ does nothing you haven’t seen before. The abandoned warehouse/decayed urban setting is reminiscent of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Trepass’, the last scene of ‘The French Connection’ and several dozen others at least. The dialogue – save for a handful of throwaway lines used to comic effect – is functional at best.
And even reckoned as an entry in cinema’s century-long pantheon of great shoot-outs – the film’s self-acknowledged raison d’être – it never comes close to achieving the catharsis of Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ or the sheer visual poetry of John Woo’s ‘The Killer’. Candles, fluttering doves and balletic dives by cool guys in long coats and shades firing two-handedly are notable in ‘Free Fire’ only by their absence. Nor does Amy Jump’s script engage with the interrelationships of the various groups who find themselves at odds and out to kill each other. Peckinpah would have rigorously interrogated the psychology, motivation and group dynamics so that even the longest and most visceral climactic bout of violence would have felt earned, devasting and inevitable. For Wheatley and Jump, the shoot-out exists for its own sake.
And therefore we have to evaluate ‘Free Fire’ purely for its technical prowess, since its so resolutely disavows any other frame of reference. Which is probably just as well since the performances – apart from Larson and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley – are generally terrible, the use of music cues is hackneyed, and the attempts at Scorsese- or Tarantino-style iconography near the start is mere copyism. Indeed, there’s precious little in the first 15 minutes to remind you that Wheatley was the dark, provocative talent behind ‘Kill List’, ‘A Field in England’ and ‘High-Rise’.
Still, it takes no more than those first 15 minutes to establish ciphers (sorry, characters) and setting and get everyone edgy and trigger happy. And once the shooting starts, Wheatley’s directorial prowess leaps to the fore. Unlike so many contemporary films – where choppy editing and shaky camera work conspire to leave the viewer in abject confusion as to who is where and shooting at whom; or where spatially finite interiors suddenly take on Tardis-like dimensions as heroes and villains range over seemingly endless square-feet of foot space and they squeeze off round after round – ‘Free Fire’ sets out its stall quickly and precisely in terms of the warehouse’s dimensions, the antagonists’ spatial relationship to each other and the ballistic capability of the weaponry on display, and plays scrupulously fair by its own rules.
What I took away from ‘Free Fire’ – more so than the observation that even the world’s worst perm, a coating of grime and some blood splatter can’t make Brie Larson anything less than radiant – is how incredibly well thought-out the film is. This wasn’t just a case of handing over the action stuff to a second unit; this is the work of a director who is genuinely interested in the aesthetics, logistics and challenges of shooting action, and the film benefits immeasurably from Wheatley’s complete engagement. He also makes a wise decision in not taking the material seriously, instead allowing it to unspool as an absurdist black comedy. Which isn’t say that ‘Free Fire’ is entirely fun-with-guns or muzzle-flash-and-quickfire-gags; the cynical cruel streak that runs through all of Wheatley’s oeuvre is present and correct here.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed ‘Free Fire’. It delivered up some decent belly laughs and it was just ridiculous enough to appeal. I can’t fault it on a technical level (the sound design, in particular, is something to be marvelled at). But I can’t help wondering what Wheatley’s motivation was. For all its strong points, so much of it seems like a showreel to demonstrate what he can achieve with a small budget ($10million) and that he can be trusted to deliver standout set pieces. What I’m hoping is that ‘Free Fire’ is a letter of introduction to the money men whose chequebooks can make possible his much mooted remake of ‘Wages of Fear’. If this is the case, we should all go out and see it, and maybe in 2019 or 2020 I’ll happily be reviewing the film that I’m convinced will be Wheatley in excelsis.