Ben Wheatley

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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High-Rise

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19/03/16

In a relatively short career, British director Ben Wheatley has produced an interesting selection of films, all quite different but all in their own way, intriguing. High-Rise, an adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, represents the flowering of that talent. Here is a film so packed with interesting ideas, it sometimes threatens to explode in all directions, as Wheatley throws idea after idea into the mix and hits the ‘mix’ button. While the end result is far from perfect, it’s never less than riveting. I’ve read that David Cronenberg planned to film this back in the day and it’s easy to see the attraction – some of the scenes here put me in mind of his debut feature, Shiver; but having said that, this is Wheatley’s vision and for the most part it works beautifully.

Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a massive high rise apartment and attempts to make friends with the neighbours. They include the promiscuous Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a belligerent TV documentary maker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss). It’s clear from the very start that Laing doesn’t quite fit in, but he clearly intends to give it his best shot. He is soon summoned up to the penthouse to meet the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who has created a lavish rooftop garden for his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) complete with flocks of sheep and a white horse for her to ride. At first, it all goes relatively smoothly, but when the tenants on the lower floors start to encounter electricity blackouts and food shortages, it’s not long before rebellion begins to spread irresistibly upwards, resulting in outbreaks of pillaging, looting and the weirdest Abba cover version you’ve ever heard.  The toffs in the top floors decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands and set about commandeering everything they can get their hands on. Laing (a typically amoral Ballard antihero), watches it all with a detached air but eventually finds himself drawn into the chaos as he tries to survive as best he can.

Ballard’s story is an obvious allegory about class and privilege and the ways in which society has to adapt to changing circumstances in order to continue. Wheatley, working as ever with his writer companion, Amy Jump, has cleverly opted to set the story in the 70s, just like the source novel, creating wonderful sets of brutalist architecture, together with some quite horrific fashion statements. The first forty minutes of this zips along with complete confidence and looks absolutely ravishing; the last third is perhaps a little less sure of itself, but having said that, there are more great ideas on offer here than you’ll see in most Hollywood movies and once again, the pace rarely falters.

The conclusion (which features the voice of Margaret Thatcher) will have you discussing the film’s message long after the final credits have rolled. Please don’t miss this one, it really is rather fabulous.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney