It’s Beard Oil!
You know, one of the reasons I’m drawn to film as an art form is the power. Admittedly, that sounds like something a Bond villain would say, but hear me out here. It isn’t just the script that tells a story and defines a character, instead a whole range of tools are at the filmmaker’s disposal. There are the obvious examples, such as costumes, colour schemes and the actor cast in the role, but a vast amount of characterisation can be told simply by how close they stand to the camera or what angle the camera is at when the character is on screen.
Beyond that, music, colour and pacing can be hugely effective in creating a feeling and sense of story in the audience. It’s all pretty standard filmmaking techniques, but it’s been something I’ve been dwelling on since I caught a preview screening of Ben Wheatley’s latest action-crime-shoot-‘em-’up, Free Fire (2017) a couple of weeks ago.
Before I go further, I have to say that Free Fire is legitimately great fun and I absolutely recommend it. Cut out the fashionable polish of Tarantino, or the mockney heroism of Guy Ritchie, and you’re approaching the sort of tone present in Ben Wheatley’s direction of Free Fire. Not afraid to leave the principal cast dragging their bleeding bodies across the dusty ground, Free Fire tells a different kind of crime shooter story.
The film itself unfolds roughly in real time. Set in Boston in 1973, we join a group of IRA members under the watchful eye of the veteran Frank (Michael Smiley) and his second in command, Chris (Cillian Murphy). Their guide, an American by the name of Justine (Brie Larson), has arranged a meeting with a South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American lackeys, led by Ord (Armie Hammer).
It doesn’t take long before tensions begin to rise between the two groups, as you would expect for a deeply illegal and dangerous arms deal in the middle of an abandoned factory. This is made explicitly clear with some great body language and shots that linger close to the action. However, despite some terse negotiations, the two groups agree and are preparing to move on when Harry (Jack Reynor) and Stevo (Sam Riley), two of the low level minions, turn against each other. In moments, tensions erupt into an open firefight that genuinely feels real.
Wounds are hard felt, bullets often miss and every shot counts. The tone is flippant, but the action has a gritty realism to it far removed from the ordinary cinematic experience of gory headshots and insta-deaths on hordes of enemies that don’t seem to understand how to use cover. The very fact that so many people in the audience I watched it with were chuckling at sequences that would have been a standard action scene in 1970s cinema goes some way to showing how far we’ve come – though not necessarily in the right direction.
The unfair comparison that comes to mind is the John Wick series, specifically John Wick Chapter 2 (2017). As I noted in my review, I found John Wick 2’s action scenes to be almost intolerably boring. After the first few beats, it was easy to predict his moves and the inevitable final head shot with almost 100% accuracy. There’s no denying that it looked slick and was executed with perfect martial prowess, but that doesn’t mean it is right.
I was bored by John Wick 2. I may have been the only person in the world to think so, but Free Fire managed to be incredibly fun without losing a sense of realism. Indeed, it feels like we’re so used to John-Wick-esque glossy, shiny, martial artist nonsense that seeing a man bleeding and crawling with his head as low as possible feels so ridiculous that it can urge audiences to laugh and chuckle almost non-stop through the entire film.
It also helps that the characters, with Chris and Ord as the only exceptions – feel so overwhelmingly inept and uncomfortable that there is a certain amount of underdog humour here too. Throw in some genuinely funny taunts and teases, and Ord’s aloof cigarette breaks, and Free Fire proves to be a stand out film for me.
It’s hard to describe with any real detail as the plot itself is fairly monotone. The film is built on the wonderful performances of the actors (including a great bit of screen presence from Brie Larson – which almost makes up for her role in Kong: Skull Island (2017)) and the creative filmmaking behind the scenes, which itself is a refreshingly retro approach to modern cinema. Warm browns, greys and greens help define the era, while time is taken to establish the relationships and frustrations of the characters and their chosen nemesis for each scene.
It does make me wonder what a Ben Wheatley spaghetti western would look like. Hmmmmm.
Absolutely worth a watch. If it was a choice between John Wick and Free Fire, I know which way I’m leaning.
Yours, A P Tyler