Not many movies call for a “bespoke weapon recording” credit, but that’s not the only unusual signal “Free Fire” is a relentless and wildly unpredictable film. The latest from British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote and co-edited the film with Amy Jump, the movie had its world premiere as the opening night of the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival.
The scene Thursday night at the Ryerson Auditorium was particularly raucous before the movie began, even by the standards of Midnight Madness. Balloons bounced about the room above the audience’s heads and there seemed to be at least two air horns somewhere in the house, giving the room a pre-hockey game vibe. And that was before the room broke into coordinated clapping during pre-show festival credits.
“Free Fire” did not let that energy drop. In introducing the film, Wheatley brought out a big chunk of the film’s cast, including Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Noah Taylor, Michael Smiley, Enzo Cilenti and Babou Ceesay. (Only Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor were not in attendance from the film’s major cast members. Executive producer Martin Scorsese was also not present.)
“No one has seen this movie,” said Wheatley, “So this is it, this is the birth of this film and I can’t think of a better audience than the Midnight Madness.”
And with that, they were off the stage and the movie began. Set in Massachusetts in the 1970s, the film is deceptively simple, as a gun deal in an abandoned factory goes wrong and leaves a group of people with a seemingly limitless supply of weapons and ammo to settle their differences.
The film becomes an uproarious series of reorientations, as there are roughly two sides to the conflict, then for a time three and increasingly every person out for themselves. There is a madcap sense of invention to the shifting dynamics of the room and the unending series of standoffs. As the characters become increasingly debilitated, wounded but still going, they simply drag themselves across the floor.
The film is extremely violent but very exuberant, maintaining just the right cartoonish edge. “Free Fire” manages to be both a gritty, tense crime standoff and an outrageous comedy.
Coming back out afterward for a Q&A, Wheatley, whose previous films include “Kill List,” “Sightseers,” “A Field in England” and “High-Rise,” said, “With all the films we’ve made, we’ve thought, ‘What do we want to see?’ And I wanted to see this.”
With the filmmakers all lined up in a row onstage, and something slightly muffled in the auditorium’s sound system, after a few minutes Copley and Larson noted that they couldn’t hear what Wheatley was saying at the other end of the stage.
“I love everything that Ben says, and I’m annoyed that I can’t listen to you,” Larson noted with an upbeat effervescence. Turning toward the house she added, “because this is gold.”
She continued, “I’m a huge fan of Ben and Amy and when I read the script it had the two things that I love so much, which is really entertaining on the surface and then has something deeper underneath it.
“The whole process was incredible, but I don’t know if you already talked about that.”
“Process? No,” said Wheatley.
Noting how much time the cast spent rolling around on the ground of the warehouse where they were shooting the film and how spatial orientation to the others often became a key point, Larson added, “You’re in the warehouse and you realize, ‘Oh, there’s no place for me to hide, so I guess I’m going to get shot again. OK, hook me up and I’ll get shot again.’ And you just have to keep going. It’s like a really long, drawn-out game of laser tag.”
“That’s the poster quote,” said Wheatley.
After more chatter about rolling around in the dirt and debris of the warehouse floor, Copley grabbed a microphone and said, “I don’t feel sorry for any of these people, because I was set on fire.” He noted how the fire stunt was saved until the end of the shoot, “just in case, I still think.”
Wheatley said that the stunt used no computer effects, adding “that was him, on fire.”
A question from the audience asked how the characters using revolvers in the movie had enough bullets on them to keep reloading.
Wheatley responded, “It works out just about right if you count all the bullets, except for Sam Riley.”
And with that Riley threw a middle finger up toward the questioner and began to triumphantly yell into the mike.
Such was the mad exuberance of “Free Fire” that the audience roared its approval once again.
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