Saturday, September 15, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #48. "Free Fire" (2017)

Scene from Free Fire
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Free Fire
Released: April 21, 2017 
Release Number: 48
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer
Plot:Set in Boston in 1978, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival.

Part of the joy of early year releases of A24 films is their unpredictable genre fare. Following the psychological horror feast The Blackcoat's Daughter, the studio turned to a British filmmaker who had been making a buzz for quite awhile. Free Fire is far from director Ben Wheatley's first film, but reflects someone with the drive to continue making films on an interesting scale. In this case, it means taking the pretentious artifice out of action movies and get to the heart of what makes the shoot 'em up genre both so riveting and so tragic. It's a super violent film, but isn't one that glorifies ultraviolence. With a cast that includes returning A24 actors like Brie Larson (Room) and producer Martin Scorsese (Revenge of the Green Dragons), the film was one of the first surefire hits for A24 in 2017, though it was far from the last.

The idea for the film stemmed from a variety of inspirations, both real and fictional. Among the real stories that grabbed the attention of Wheatley was an incident while he was filming his 2009 film Down Terrace. Actor Rob Hill told him about a story in which some criminals had a shootout with police in Miami. The report detailed how many bullets each body had been riddled with and gave a very detailed account of how the shootout took a long time, seeming to last forever while everyone got hit but not killed. Other influences included a level of the video game Counter-Strike called "Assault," which was essentially a level in which characters had a shootout in an abandoned warehouse. Between these two ideas, the skeleton for Free Fire was created. Another inspiration came in the casting. Wheatley met with actor Cillian Murphy around 2011 or 2012 and the actor discussed interest in working with him. Murphy's role in the film was essentially written for him.

In the preproduction stages, Wheatley decided to map out the entire warehouse in the video game Minecraft. With a detailed layout, he even had the walls and ceiling built in, with somewhat proper lighting, With this design, he was able to look at how he was going to shoot the film using different angles as well as whether different characters could see each other at anyone point. The film was said to take a lot of influence from video games, especially with the various camera angles that borrowed from first person perspectives. He also had a goal of making an action movie that didn't rely on the Hollywood tropes. The most specific one was that he didn't want actors to fly backwards when they got shot - which he felt never made sense. He wanted it to feel "realistic" and not be an American style film. The same could be said for how he wrote the characters with co-writer Amy Jump, which weren't able to be neatly packed into good and evil archetypes. They were each equal parts endearing.

The film began filming in June 2015 in the former newspaper building for The Argus. Outside scenes were shot at Shoreham Port. Majority of the cast had their roles written for them, including Sharlto Copley, who added a South African flair to the role. Copley also had one of the more notorious stunts, which involved being set on fire. He did the stunt himself and  featured zero CGI (the film also had limited use of CGI, as Wheatley claimed it would be distracting), though he wore a fireproof suit and had hands with extinguishers on hold in case of an accident. The outfits were also destroyed throughout the filming to reflect the various wear of the outfits, including being dunked in acid to create a weathered look. Among the film's achievements is also the fact that it is technically the longest filmed shootout scene in film history, clocking in at around 55 minutes between first and last shot. In that case, Wheatley's reliance on a large amount of violence was achieved. Whether or not it was effective would be up for the audience to decide.

Upon completion, the film was bought by various studios including Alchemy. However, when the studio was reported to be having financial problems, A24 bought the film in March 2016 from them. Add in that Wheatley had the film produced by Martin Scorsese, who was a professed fan of his early film Kill List, it looked to have a lot of clout going into its actual release. Wheatley began to sell the film on the idea of people coming to America to buy guns, and giving it a certain poignancy. This helped it play well at film festivals, including a debut at Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. Wheatley would note that the gun violence didn't bother audience members as much as smaller moments of violence involving syringes and mallets breaking bones. Despite the ongoing conflict of gun violence in the United States, it never received major controversy for its depiction of violence. However, many praised its ability to use video game aesthetics within the filming of the scenes to add a more visceral touch to the entire film. 

To some extent, the film was doomed in another way. There were reports that the film would open at the American box office with $3 million. However, it would go on to gross $994,430 on opening weekend, missing the Top 10 entirely, earning barely $1.4 million by its box office run in the states. The film would also receive tepid reviews on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, where it received a 68%. Manuela Lazic of Little White Lies reflected the enthusiasm for the film, suggesting that "Wheatley allows his notorious black humour to resurface, and with 90 minutes of mindless shootouts, he reaches his goal." Joe Lipsett of Bloody Disgusting backed up the sentiments by noting "For audiences willing to park their brains at the door and embrace the madness, Free Fire should hit the sweet spot." Brooke Corso of The Monitor felt more in line with those not willing to go along with Wheatley's shenanigans, stating "Watching Free Fire was like babysitting a gaggle of little hellions intent on destroying everything in their path and just herding them into a room and blockading the door, letting them fight and scream and tire themselves out." It was always going to be a divisive movie, though what's striking is how one feature could be both a plus and minus based on the critic.

Free Fire was the latest film from Wheatley, and one that used innovative techniques to map out its story with video games. He claims that his next film will have been choreographed with Grand Theft Auto. But for now, he leaves behind one of his most simple and ambitious films yet, managing to turn one strenuous shootout into a full story with comedy, violence, and everything in between. Depending on how that sentence appeals to the reader, it will determine how much it's actually going to be fun for the audience. Still, it's more evidence that Wheatley experiments with form almost constantly, and this is no exception. For the next film, A24 mixes things up not by doing horror or action genres, but with a more grounded story featuring some Oscar-level talent once again presenting a drama that may not be its most memorable film, but definitely continues their track record of trying everything out no matter what.

Up Next: The Lovers (2017)

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