Ben Wheatley revisited: Free Fire (2016)

Free FIre
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Free Fire marked a different turn in the career of Ben Wheatley, and we’ve been going back to 2016 to revisit the film…

Rolling in only a year after the ambitious, satirical and operatic High-Rise, Free Fire feels like an intentional change of pace from Ben Wheatley.

Oddly enough, the closest picture to this in his filmography is probably his first, 2009’s Down Terrace, focused as it was on a family of criminals and assorted players in the London crime community. Free Fire nonetheless takes an entirely different approach, albeit once again retaining Wheatley’s penchant for a contained space. The rubble strewn Boston warehouse is one of his most tightly constricted yet, with the majority of the picture playing out in these environs, designed initially in Minecraft as a 3D render, of all places.

The magic of the movies though, eh? Wheatley’s first truly American-style picture was shot in his home town of Brighton. You would never know. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese no less, Free Fire is a paean to both the gangster film and the work of Quentin Tarantino, specifically Reservoir Dogs, given it brings together around a dozen criminal players, throws them into a scenario where ego, honour, anger and simple bad judgement take over, and the result is an hour of screen time where a collection of A-list actors and talented characters players shoot and wound each other. It’s like ‘the Great Big Punch Up’ sketch from The Fast Show, just with guns.

Wheatley describes the inspiration:

I wanted to make an action movie. I started looking at ballistics reports of real shootouts, and what was coming across was what a mess everything is. Cinema scenes are quite clean usually, and I wondered what it would be like to put that onto the screen.

The fun of Free Fire, and in some ways it is the most fun Wheatley has had on screen, lies in watching very recognisable actors such as Cillian Murphy, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer firing bullets into each other repeatedly, and very few of them dying, or at least dying quickly. There is a farcical flavour to the gunplay. This isn’t slick action riven with heroes or even conventional villains. Many of these people – be they IRA soldiers (much like High-Rise, this is 70s set) or arms dealing brokers – are hapless, some of them even pure village idiots. Once the shit hits the fan, they become locked in a maze of sodden earth and bullet fire, trapped in no small part by their own stupidity.

In that vein, Wheatley and Amy Jump’s script is stacked with the kind of predominantly masculine characters they love to write – men with delusions of grandeur or who simply aren’t as charismatic as they believe they are. Sam Riley, here, as the IRA bozo Stevo serves as the trigger for mayhem because he sleazes over the teenage sister of Jack Reynor’s wound up American gun runner & simply can’t smooth things over, despite Murphy’s Chris (a part Wheatley wrote with him in mind) and partner Frank (Michael Smiley, one of Wheatley’s longest term collaborators) knocking seven colours out of him for the insult he gives. Male bravado costs lives in Free Fire.

Free FIre

It also taps into another recurring expression in Wheatley’s work, that of a tribal clash of cultures. Murphy and Smiley represent an IRA at the peak of their infamy as terrorists – around this time they will blow up Mountbatten and almost kill Margaret Thatcher (in Brighton, no less). Yet they are portrayed, certainly via Murphy, as proud yet essentially charming men. Chris and Larson’s Justine comes close to being a romantic attachment at the heart of the picture. Around them, however, other tribes form. Hammer and Copley (the latter in gregarious form as Vernon, a swaggering South African dealer who believes his own hype, a role originally written as American) representing a naked form of capitalism as opposed to Chris and Frank’s idealism.

There is quite a bit of sexism innate in the characterisation of these men, in a non-specific 70s time setting. Wheatley didn’t want to be too prescriptive with it. But in Justine, and how the men react to her, you see the toxicity that leads to the explosive stupidity. Take Vernon’s opening comment to her: “As gorgeous as ever! Well, you’ve put a bit of weight on. Did someone impregnate you?” Justine quite rightly responds with a choice “fuck off”, but nevertheless.

Justine gamely has to weather a level of entitled masculinity while displaying her own dextrous level of cunning. “Ugh, men” she states at one point, underwriting a lot of what Jump and Wheatley explore across their films. Again, we’re dealing with self-aggrandising tribes of men very quickly revealed to be incompetent, lazy and venal in equal measure. Justine does her best to get the hell out of dodge quickly once they begin to turn on each other, drawing battle lines, transforming the setting into a warehouse Wild West, bullets flying and impacting with abandon.

Wheatley discusses how looking at reports of an FBI shootout informed the truth he was hoping to capture here:

What came across in the report was the thing of people firing and missing. I started reading accounts of other police and special forces operations, and apparently firing guns is a perishable skill: unless you’re highly trained and do it all the time, you revert to being as bad as a civilian quite quickly. You can shoot paper targets completely accurately all day long, but as soon as someone shoots back at you, you go to pieces. They’re moving and you’re moving and it’s so terrifying that it’s very hard to shoot straight. So that was the reality I wanted to try and represent.

This is what becomes apparent in Free Fire, making it both comical and, in its own hyper-realistic way, true – the fact all of these people, predominantly men, are quite hapless and hopeless when the chips are down. They spend an hour going around in pointless circles, which is nonetheless highly entertaining to watch as an audience.

Free FIre

Scorsese, in consulting on the film upon watching it (understandably a singular moment for Wheatley as a creative), advised on sound design, suggesting he crunch up the volume on the ballistics. Wheatley listened to him as Free Fire is punctuated with bangs, shouts, bodies crawling on gravel and mud. It feels at points like a war zone these fools are grappling with, a no way out, no win scenario. Can we read Free Fire as such? Politics frequently lurks under Wheatley and Jump’s scripts and after High-Rise confronted the natural, destructive cycle of capitalism, Free Fire is perhaps a dissection of not just rampant issues of gun control but equally the futility of war. These men are capitalists of a different kind, simply on a more underground level, or indeed battlefield.

Wheatley and Jump also enjoy the culture clash nature of the character interactions, perhaps befitting their own position as Brits making a deliberately American crime thriller. Pitting Ord against Frank’s humourless frustration yields fine results, in moments where they tussle over which Hollywood (the one in LA, or the one missing an ‘l’ in County Down) is harder work. Smiley bouncing of Hammer’s smarm is wonderful. It is the encapsulation of the British vs American sensibility at the heart of the filmmaking here. Free Fire builds a great deal of the tension around people from the U.K., America, even Africa in Vernon’s case, coming together in a contained environment where culture, prejudice and sexual morality all brew up and spill over into violence.

Though Wheatley won’t return to an American canvas until Meg 2: The Trench – a wildly different film – Free Fire serves as yet another example of a filmmaker unafraid to experiment and challenge. It is a brisk, frothy foray into comic violence that still plays into many of the tropes and concepts the director frequently revisits. Following this, he about turns again, back to England, for a picture that in many respects sends him back, directly, to the very beginning.

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