"Tragedy," Mel Brooks once said, "is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." It is a great line, and mostly true. But in offering that sound bite, Brooks accidentally predicted a new sort of film genre, decades ahead of his time: the Ben Wheatley/Amy Jump movie.
Over the course of just six years – Wheatley directing, Jump writing and editing – the British husband-and-wife team have produced a distinctly dark, perversely wry brand of cinema. Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise: Each mixes trauma and humour, horror and satire into a complicated, mostly unclassifiable stew that's at once crass and cerebral. Mel Brooks should be a fan, if he isn't already.
With their new film Free Fire, though, Wheatley and Jump inch that much closer from the cult of the indescribable to the embrace of the mainstream. The action-comedy, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, carries the imprimatur of producer Martin Scorsese; its 1970s setting gives it a kitschy, and easily marketable, retro vibe; and it stars Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Academy Award winner Brie Larson, easily the pair's biggest casting coups to date. But it's still a Wheatley/Jump movie, meaning it's vulgar, riotous and occasionally insane. Which is exactly what attracted Larson to the project in the first place.
"Ben and Amy are doing things with cinema consciously that I think very few people are doing," says the actress during an interview at TIFF last September. "I knew it wasn't just a cool seventies action film. There was going to be undertones and symbolism and something deeper."
In Free Fire's case, that means telling a morality tale using the most immoral means available. Set over the course of a single night in an abandoned Boston warehouse, Free Fire tracks an arms deal gone wrong, with representatives from the IRA and the local mob engaging in one very long, very violent gun fight. Surely Wheatley and Jump break the record for the most shots ever fired on screen, and it's likely a good deal of the budget went toward blood squibs.
But this isn't a film that fetishizes firearms, or one that waves away the consequences of carnage – Free Fire is instead a droll study on humanity's inherent idiocy. In other words: guns don't kill people, stupid people kill people.
"When we made this film, the conversation around gun laws and gun violence wasn't as dialled up as it is now, but I am happy the film is clear in its representation of what these weapons are, which is incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, and a terrible, stupid way of communicating," Larson says. "So Ben and Amy use humour, very dark humour, to look at these issues more closely, rather than shoving the idea down your throat. You look at it and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Why is this movie still going an hour later when all anybody had to do was put down their gun?"
Which is where Wheatley and Jump's now-trademark sense of incongruity jumps to the forefront. You don't want to watch Free Fire's characters die miserable deaths – well, maybe some of them – yet, at the same time, the relentlessness of the action is appealing, almost addictive in its aesthetic pleasures. Part of that is thanks to action cinema's long history of glorifying violence, but it's also due to the compelling push-pull style driving Wheatley and Jump's work.
"At this point in my career, I was done shooting people and getting blown up for no good reason," says Copley, who's experienced his fair share of gore in District 9, Oldboy and Hardcore Henry. "So I viewed this as more a chance to explore the worst-case aggression of the male ego and testosterone. It's the small fights that escalate and the aggression that only ends one way. And exploring it with Ben and Amy was the appeal."
Free Fire is not quite a plunge into an open sewer, then, but it's as close to a new Mel Brooks movie as we're likely to get in 2017. Long may Wheatley and Jump continue to horrify us.
Free Fire opens April 21.