With Better Call Saul Season 3 now streaming on Stan, we had the rare and wonderful opportunity to sit down with Slippin' Jimmy himself, Bob Odenkirk, to shoot the breeze about everyone's favourite hapless, hopelessly corrupt ambulance chaser.
Sometimes films work best when they are just trying to be fun. No deep questions. No meandering plots drenched in melancholy. No existential reflection. All you need is a group of misfits with short tempers and witty insults locked in a room with a lot of money and a lot of guns. And Ben Wheatley’s new film, Free Fire, is exactly that. Set almost in its entirety in a warehouse in the ‘70s after an arms deal goes wrong, two gangs are left scrambling for survival with only their guns and their wits to save them. But everyone has an agenda and not everything is as it seems.
For such a straightforward concept, Free Fire is quite the balancing act and executed on a number of levels. The first thing that hits you is the dialogue. Written by Wheatley and his frequent collaborator and wife, Amy Jump, the dialogue lets each character truly shine with their own idiosyncrasies and ugliness on show, and yet, even the vilest amongst them are lovable in their own way. The dialogue, too, is brought to life by a brilliant cast led by Brie Larson, Armie Hammer (possibly the standout and doing his best work since The Social Network), Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley (doing what he does best), to name a few. But even the smaller players have their own brilliant moments.
The next level this film plays on is the thriller. Even when you can see what is coming next in Free Fire, there are surprises to be had. Hitchcock once described surprise as what happens when a bomb suddenly went off in a film. Suspense is when two people are having a quiet chat, whilst a bomb slowly counts down under the table; the audience knowing what’s going on, whilst the characters do not. Free Fire gives us both and both done well. Before the deal goes wrong, each passing second coils the tension in tighter and, later, there are plenty of those explosive surprises too.
Thirdly, there is just the shoot ‘em up, bloody violence that is satisfying on a much more primal level. When these characters bleed, they really bleed. When someone gets burned, you see the melting flesh. And there is one scene near the end of the film that will likely have you wriggling in your chair. Sometimes, we are too desensitised to violence as it has become so commonplace, stripping it of its power. Wheatley goes all-in on the violence in Free Fire and the film is all the better for it.
Wheatley shows a unique verve that is present in few directors today. He knows when to push a scene and when to hold back. The very fact that the film runs only ninety minutes long and never outstays its welcome is a credit to his understanding of audiences.
And, even though in the latter half of the film the characters aren’t so much teased out as they are in the former, it still keeps its pace and keeps us glued to the screen.
Because of the multiple dynamics Wheatley plays with, the snappy dialogue, the single room setting, and the unsavoury, criminal quality of its characters, parallels have been drawn between Free Fire and Reservoir Dogs. At first glance the comparison makes sense, but is ultimately a superficial reading. Free Fire isn’t a film to compare to others. It stands on its own two legs just fine and, boy, is it one hell of a fun ride.
Shots Fired covers the investigation of a shooting of a young white man by a black cop, in a small southern US town. The state governor Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) is accommodating and welcomes the investigation, though local Sheriff Platt (Will Patton) and his Lt. Breeland (True Blood’s Stephen Moyer) are less than forthcoming, closing ranks. Department of Justice lawyer Preston Terry (Stephan James) and his investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) are soon asking questions of witnesses and the victim’s family but they become mired in a hotbed of local police politics and social activism as local Pastor, Janae James (Aisha Hinds) sees an opportunity to politicise the killing, using it as activist fodder within the community and inflaming tensions. As they dig deeper, Terry and Akino’s investigation is met with silence and a troubling undercurrent of fear amongst local black residents, impeding their case.
Created by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood (who both got their start on Bill Cosby’s A Different World but have gone on to much more ‘respectable’ work such as the film Beyond the Lights), this crime ensemble drama has currency at the moment. The People vs OJ Simpson was a surprise hit and along with the set-and-forget reliability of the TV police procedural that refuses to die, it seems that cable TV has forced network TV to be a little smarter in how it delivers the cop drama staple.
The recent real-life spate of police killing black youths is the primary discussion here with the main story being an interesting inversion of that narrative. A mash-up of Law and Order and In The Heat of the Night that largely works, Shots Fired isn’t afraid to tackle some heavy social issues and do it with smarts and surprisingly, some nuance.
“Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a lawyer.”
That’s not how this frenetic and bombastic South Korean legal melodrama begins, but it may as well – such is the debt that director, owes to Martin Scorsese. Not so much a rise-and-fall story as a corruption-and-redemption arc, The King takes elements from Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and – to pull a non-Marty out of the hat – Wall Street and puts them through a specifically Korean cultural lens. The result is not perfect, but it’s also never not engaging.
Park Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is a thug-in-training, son to a small crook and a feared brawler who seems well on his way to a splendid career in skulduggery when the sight of his father blubbering at the feet of a state prosecutor makes him realise where the real power lies. Throwing himself into study, he aces his exams and passes the bar, only to find that his dream job is mostly paperwork and drudgery. All that changes when he comes into the orbit of superstar chief prosecutor, Han Kang Sik (Jung Woo-sung), who runs his team of lawyers like a crew of made men, selecting what cases to action and when, and protecting the powerful in return for wealth and position. It doesn’t take out man long to succumb to temptation, but he soon finds that the labyrinthine politics and backstabbing is like a bad day in Byzantium.
You’ve seen this sort of thing before, but even so you’ve not seen anything quite like The King. Tracking Park’s progress from the mid ’80s to the present day, it takes us through a tumultuous period in Korean histroy, as the country struggled to embrace modern democracy and elbow its way onto the world stage. While the broad thematic and narrative strokes are familiar – Park develops a partnership with an old criminal buddy (Ryu Jun-yeol) for those times he needs dirty deeds done, he struggles to balance his own ethics with the demands of his corrupt milieu – etc and so forth), the specific details are fascinating. Korea’s legal system is based on the inquisitorial model, and the idea of rock star prosecutors playing the media to ensure they get big headlines for resolving high profile cases is a fascinating one. We also get a sobering look at Korea’s insanely competitive education system, seeing Park spend years living in a kind of squalid student boot camp to study for his exams – never has the ATAR looked so appealing.
The King falters when it tries to handle material and concepts a little too heavy for the director’s flashy, glib visual style. At one point Park is pressured into helping a rapist walk free, and the emotional weight of his choice never quite hits home, with Han focusing his efforts on visual elan rather than actual drama. It feels like the story is frequently in service to technique, rather than the other way around, and though Han is a dab hand at bold camera moves and imaginative scene transitions, often he’s more concerned with these flourishes than actually working to communicate his actual themes and concerns. You also get the feeling that, as non-Korean viewers, we’re missing out on a lot of cultural references and jibes – the price you pay for not being down with the last 30 years of Korean domestic politics. Still, this is a slick, snarky, breathless ride through hidden corridors of power, and that’s always fun, even when the exact thesis remains murky.