Tony Black on Free Fire…
Let’s be honest, if you’ve seen Free Fire, you’ll know it’s not particularly like a lot of the 1970’s crime films that, on the face of it, Ben Wheatley’s movie would sit alongside. This pulpy, lean slice of comic violence owes more to the early 90’s stylistics of down’n’dirty Tarantino than to Scorsese or Friedkin, but given i’ts set in the 70’s, was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, and certainly has plenty of now retro-connections to that decade, this seems a good place to analyse Free Fire in the context of the crime pictures of that decade. Where does it fit? Should it fit at all? Or should it rather tuck in behind Reservoir Dogs and, anachronistically, exist slightly out of the time it’s very much rooted in?
Crime thrillers of the 1970’s, for a start, weren’t big on comedy. Many of them were broiling with an American or even British rage you can see bursting out on the surface in movies such as Get Carter–possibly Michael Caine’s best performance–which began the decade in cold, nihilistic fashion and set the trend for the revenge thriller that would become popularised as much by Michael Winner’s far pulpier Death Wish and sequels. Many were tapping into the growing undercurrent of societal discord after the end of the swinging 60’s, in the US certainly in the wake of the disastrous and disillusioning Vietnam and scandals such as Watergate bringing down a President; these were the very touchstones out of which not just political dramas were born but the dark, gritty crime thrillers many now revere gave birth to. Free Fire doesn’t have that subtext of rage or a political axe to grind and in many respects is more in line with a caper.
Perhaps it’s more in line with pictures such as the original 1973 The Taking of Pelham 123, Joseph Sargent’s legendary subway heist movie with Walter Matthau leading an all star cast, or perhaps even the super cool Across 110th Street from 1972, with New York cops taking on the Mafia, a film perhaps best known for its awesome title track performed by Bobby Womack. Choices of music are definitely a style Free Fire has in common, an aesthetic choice Wheatley borrows for his punchy picture; not just opening with ‘Do the Boob’ by The Real Kids or including classic 70’s rock such as ‘Run Through the Jungle’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and even John Denver ballading ‘Annie’s Song’ to a climactic, slow-motion shootout.
Music is an important part of many a great 70’s crime movie, even down to the score – take David Shire’s jazzy style to the aforementioned Pelham, or Bernard Hermann’s signature theme for Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Indeed for Free Fire, joint composers Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury attempt to tap into the same sense of 70’s era jazz matched with a discordance which plays well alongside the mania and eccentricity exhibited by many of the characters in Wheatley’s film.
See that’s where Free Fire differs from much of the genre, dealing not with intense cops such as William Friedkin’s Popeye Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection, or even corrupt officers being exposed by Al Pacino in 1976’s Serpico. There isn’t one cop in Free Fire and the closest you get to the fuzz are badly timed cop car sirens. Wheatley’s film is all about the crooked misfits and idiots that come together in Boston on one night, attempting to make an arms deal happen, only for ego, misunderstanding, overactive trigger fingers and just pure idiocy to descend the eclectic cast into a protracted bloodbath.
Much as you find with many a Wheatley film, a level of cool exploitation sits alongside heightened violence and pure irreverence, all of which are present in Free Fire. If it owes anything to 70’s crime movies, perhaps John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 may come close, with its pitched battle in a locked down, dark and dirty environment. Free Fire ends up being a confined piece of B-movie froth, filled with bullets and blood and tongue very much in cheek, which sets it apart from the brooding anger within the majority of 70’s crime pictures.
Which brings us full circle back to Tarantino, who himself was inspired by 70’s cinema in a big way, and his work is absolutely a major touchstone for Free Fire. Ben Wheatley’s film consequently feels like it’s own brand of comic nonsense, filled with at times larger than life characters who bring more of a heightened reality to proceedings than many 70’s crime thrillers. It may be set in that decade but stylistically, Free Fire is much more a 90’s counter-culture baby, rippling with a level of uber-violent ridiculousness which sets it apart. None of this is a criticism incidentally as it’s a hugely fun, well shot piece of cinema. Does it have the intense heft or weight of the 70’s crime thrillers it owes a few debts to? Not really. Maybe it was never supposed to.