On Wednesday 1st March I was fortunate enough to catch a preview screening of Ben Wheatley’s latest flick, Free Fire. The director decided to take his film on the road to be shown in several independent cinemas throughout the country for one night only, conducting a Q&A with actor Sam Riley after the screening. But we’ll get onto that later, how was the bloody film? Well, lock and load. It’s a riot.
As a director, it’s safe to say Ben Wheatley is divisive among critics and audiences. His style is unorthodox, surprising and sometimes confusing. For fans like me, they can be a satisfying challenge always worth dissecting. You often get the sense that the film will resonate more on a second or third viewing, but that’s fine. Who says movies shouldn’t make us work a bit? Why should they cater to the lowest common denominator?
Despite my appreciation of Wheatley’s style and craft, I’m usually cautious to recommend one his films to a friend because of their nature. With Free Fire though, he has created what is undoubtedly his most accessible film, both in story and structure.
Boston 1978, an arms deal is due to go down in an abandoned warehouse. Cillian Murphy’s IRA ‘soldier’ is the buyer, Sharlto Copley’s South African eccentric is the seller. From that central premise unfolds an explosion of arguing, betrayal and of course, flying bullets. Free Fire is an action film and unlike anything Wheatley has done before. It wears several of his trademarks such the perfectly crafted set design, expert camera work and flashes of gore, but it ‘feels’ different. It’s exhilarating and tense, but also hilarious and goofy.
Lets talk about the cast for a bit. Quite the international ensemble has been gathered here, which must be slightly unfamiliar ground for a director that usually plants his films firmly on British soil. All of the actors are arguable main players in this story, and we’re never quite sure who we should be supporting. In one ‘corner’ we have the Boston Irish consortium made up of Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley. Despite being as anti-British as an IRA group could be, they feel most like the characters you’d usually find in a Wheatley film. They’re counter-balanced by the stars and stripes presence of Brie Larson (before her Oscar win) and Armie Hammer, who acts as a mediator for the whole deal. All of the performances are fantastic and well written, but Sharlto Copley steals the show as the batshit-crazy, suit-loving arms dealer Vern. He has some of the best lines and delivers them with a daft immaturity, the type of which we haven’t seen since his turn in District 9.
Free Fire is essentially a feature-length shoot out, in the sense that Fury Road was a feature-length car chase. But that is in no way a negative. By limiting himself to one location and one main thread, Wheatley has created a tight setup that never bores. Chaos is his lifeblood, and as always he perfectly captures the carnage on screen with fantastic choreography. There is no parkour or window diving here, but there are intense crawl chases and heads bobbing in and out of cover. One of the most memorable scenes involves a truck moving at 5 mph and its more nerve-shredding than the loudest head on collision could ever be.
I can see comparisons being drawn to films like Reservoir Dogs when this hits release. In the 1993 classic, we jump in straight after the action has gone down and we’re left to pick up the pieces of a failed heist. Free Fire throws us in before the potential drama, and asks what would happen if the shit hit the fan before anything had started.
Hopefully it will prove to be a success for Ben Wheatley as he’s turned his hand to the action genre better than many directors who’ve spent a career messing it up. At the very least, it’s likely to join the rest of his films with a passionate cult following appreciative of his unique style.
A lean, bullet-ridden 90 minutes of bickering, chaos and violence balanced by a warehouse full of brilliant performances and a script witty enough to satisfy a Tarantino fan. In the words of Sharlto Copley, “Watch and Vern!”
Watch it if you liked:
Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, The Hateful Eight, The Nice Guys.
Q&A with Ben Wheatley and Sam Riley
As mentioned in the intro, this preview screening was a special event in that Ben Wheatley himself had decided to tour it, offering a session for questions once the dust had settled. It’s a good deal then that the audience seemed to unanimously love the film as they applauded Ben and Sam onto the stage.You get the sense that Ben himself had greater confidence in this film than perhaps any of his others, the slightly inflated budget and further reaching casting indicative of both the progress he’s made and the respect for him as a director.
He discussed this subject at length, going into detail about nabbing Brie Larson before she soared in fame due to Oscar recognition and drafting in Armie Hammer to play an All-American cheese ball surrounded by characters that had no time for his clichéd words of wisdom. Interestingly, the part Cillian Murphy played was written specifically for him, as an anchor to the whole film. Ben was happy to say he was as surprised as anyone to hear the ‘yes’ replies from the various agents. It’s worth giving a word on Sam Riley too. When I initially found out he’d be joining Ben on the tour, my thoughts were that he’d be a bit-part player in the film, likely attending the Q&A because he had the time to. I was wrong though, his role in the film is quite substantial and he delivers one of the most memorable performances.
On the theme of location, audience members were keen to ask about dealing with one strict warehouse set and the limitations that throws up. Ben informed them that pretty much all of his films have that one location sensibility, whether it seems that way or not. Yes, his previous film High-Rise might have taken place in various sumptuously designed rooms and hallways, but each of them was a limitation in itself, and of course they all formed part of one single high-rise block.
The minuscule budget of A Field in England took this to another extreme by setting the whole film in a single field. Wheatley is no stranger to the confines of a set, and Free Fire is yet another example of him making the most of a restricted area to thrilling effect.
Wheatley said he’d always wanted to make an action film, but not necessarily the type you’d expect. By using one key interaction and moment of tension in an arms meeting as a jump-off point, he weaves a twisty tale full of humour and mounting violence that couldn’t have come from any other director.
Throughout the whole session he was completely transparent about his process and humble in his delivery. He seems like the type of guy you’d love to sit and have a drink with, a true film fan making his own versions of the things he loves. It rounded out a fantastic evening and my enjoyment of the film was only elevated by hearing from the creator just as the credits started rolling.