With the release of Reservoir Dogs 25 years ago, Quentin Taremtino launched a thousand genre-bending would-be artistes.
Rabble-rousing British director Ben Wheatley, in league with his wife and collaborator Amy Jump, have been among the more successful.
Free Fire is their latest project, and they’ve decided to supercharge Chekov’s edict about the gun in the first act (got to be used by the third): if a crate full of assault weapons appears in the first act, why not screw the plot and just let ‘er rip?
Say what you will about the Wheatleys, they aren’t dull, so in their honor, this week we’ve picked a selection of “Super B’s” — films with auteur aspirations and genre roots,
British director Ben Wheatle seems perennially poised on the brink of that transformational Tarentino-style breakthrough. His career started with a wild grab-bag of projects — animation, viral videos and adverts; TV shows (check out seasons 5&6 of our cult favorite Ideal and the whacked sketch series Modern Life). With grade school sweetheart/wife/screenwriter/ collaborator Amy Jump he launched his online laboratory mrandmrswheatley.
In 2009 they dived into features with the 8 day/$30,000 Sopranos-meets-Mike-Leigh crime drama Down Terrace.
In their latest, they’ve virtually eliminated plot: if this is violence porn, who cares if the pizza delivery guy gets home?
It makes sense on at least one level – their last film, a style-driven adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise was regarded as a noble failure at best. So why not shoot for the mainstream with a Tarentino-meets-Richey bullet fest? Starring, among others, Oscar winner Brie Larson.
One of the reasons everybody holds out so much hope for the Wheatleys is that despite being steeped in pop/mainstream culture the Mr. and the Mrs. have a relentlessly arty streak – as exhibited by their fourth film, the B&W historical drama A Field in England.
If they were satisfied with simply churning out cult classics, the Wheatleys might be happier puppies. But you always get the feeling that they’re torn between a desire for a mainstream hit and critical acceptance; in interviews Wheatley roll calls all the right names: Roeg, Goddard, Cronenberg, Kubrick.
Shot on $300k in 13 days, A Field is set in the 17th century during the British civil wars – the period which inspired Hobbes famous “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” A Field in England hits every miserable base and adds in buried treasure, alchemy, and, just for good measure, some psychedelic mushrooms.
We’re old enough to remember the tremor that Reservoir Dogs produced, foreshock to the earthquake of Pulp Fiction. Despite the scores of imitators, nobody has been able to duplicate its louche brilliance. Not even, for us, Guy Ritchie who was fun but slight.
Of course you’ve seen it, probably more than once. But it’s been a few years. Don’t you want to watch it again?
The Wheatleys have done horror flicks too. Canadian master David Cronenberg used that genre to mine his own deep obsessions, resulting in widespread acclaim.
Shivers was Cronenberg’s first commercial feature and he used it to start his own subgenre (body horror; parasites erupting from victim’s stomachs, two years before Alien). He married it to a cultural critique provocative enough to trigger arguments in the Canadian Parliament.
The whole film takes place in a antiseptic upscale apartment building. An aging scientist – Hobbes, Dr. Emile Hobbes — kills a teenaged girl, cuts open her stomach and pours in acid; and then commits suicide.
Only gradually do we learn that Hobbes wasn’t psycho killer but an idealist desperately trying to save the world the world. Believing that in the antiseptic modern world humans had lost touch with their deeper natures, he created a sluglike parasite to bring them back into balance. And he believed so strongly that he implanted the sluglike parasite in his teenage mistress. Oops – it infected her with irresistible sexual desire. He kills her in a futile attempt to stop the parasite from spreading.
Too late patient zero has already screwed half the men in the building, and we watch the parasite spread like wildfire. By the end of the movie the whole city is doomed.
Wheatley was following in Cronenberg’s footsteps when he adapted an unfilmable J.G. Ballard novel. But Crash was something astounding you’d never seen before, whereas High-Rise was flashy but static. Not even Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons could save it.
This kinetic tour de force of action and bullets is the bar that Wheatley has to clear with Free Fire. Even though it was made by a British film-school grad artistic pretensions are put aside for dead-on world-class genre.
Welsh director Gareth Ewans is 6’7” and for many years lived in Jakarta with his Indonesian wife and daughter.
After graduating from film school in Wales, he signed on to direct a documentary about pencak silat, an Indonesiam martial art form. Through that he discovered pencak silat expert Iko Uwais working as a deliveryman and cast him in their first feature, the low-budget Merantau, which became a cult hit and led to two Raid films.
In The Raid, Iko Uwais plays Rama, member of a SWAT team who are trapped in a high rise when a gang raid goes wrong. Rama and his fellow officers must then battle their way out of the complex fighting both drug lords and corrupt cops but enlisting unexpected help along the way.
Uwais also choreographed all the action sequences.
Even though The Killing inspired them all, for violent choreography nothing trumps the Singin’ In The Rain sequence from A Clockwork Orange. In a Guardian article, Wheatley recalls traveling to Paris to see it.
This was because Kubrick himself asked Warners to pull it in the UK after it was linked to several cases of juvenile violence and his family got threats. It didn’t reappear in England until after Kubrick’s death.
As dystopian violence goes, it is still without parallel. At the time, Kubrick toned it down in various ways for release in various countries; but even after all these years it’s still at the edge of the envelope, equally mesmerizing and disgusting.