We recommend titles that influenced Ben Wheatley and more.
With his sixth feature, Ben Wheatley finally has a wide release in America. Free Fire might be his most accessible movie yet, consisting a single location and pretty much just one long action sequence. It’s basically a 90-minute third act without the first two acts getting in the way. Also it features Oscar winner Brie Larson, and who doesn’t like watching her act?
If you like what you see, then you’ll want to discover Wheatley’s other work, starting with the small crime film Down Terrace, which kicked off his career. I also recommend the following dozen movies, some of which are direct influences on Wheatley, others being similar kinds of films, and then just whatever else I had determined worthy.
The Truce Hurts (1948)
Ben Wheatley loves Tom and Jerry cartoons and has cited them as an influence on his latest movie. I don’t know which ones he considers the best or his favorites, but you can just start off with the first Tom and Jerry short, Puss Gets the Boot, or with their Oscar-nominated and winning films, such as Yankee Doodle Mouse. I’m highlighting The Truce Hurts because it involves the three main rivals, Tom, Jerry, and Spike, attempting to get along, which is sort of like all the characters in Free Fire trying to play nice in the first part of the movie. Obviously in both cases these two groups ill-fitting individuals wind up at war with each other.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Free Fire is very much, in its whole, like the climax of a Western. Wheatley has acknowledged Sam Peckinpah is an influence, and The Wild Bunch is possibly the most clearly influential on his latest, down to the arms deal gone wrong. Notorious for its violence, The Wild Bunch might now seem somewhat tame next to Wheatley’s work. But only slightly.
“In The Wild Bunch, what was inspiring was that you could run several different stories with different characters at the same time,” Wheatley says in a list of his favorite action movies, “crosscutting back and forth between them – some of the stories being in slow motion, some being in real time, and some in extreme slow motion. I’d never seen anything like that.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
Like Free Fire, this Peter Yates movie is set in Boston and involves arms dealers. It’s also one of a few crime films from the era Free Fire is set in that Wheatley directly claims was an inspiration. Robert Mitchum plays the title character, a gunrunner who becomes an informant to avoid yet another stint in prison.
“There’s nothing flashy here, just tension,” Wheatley writes in a piece for the Criterion Collection. “The direction is spare and it’s as cold as concrete. Through the observational style, we forget that, inevitably, the world in which these characters operate is chaotic. Everything seems so reasonable and certain, every word and action measured, but there is always a wild beast waiting to be unleashed, so that all these measures and controls are for nothing.” The scene he discusses can be seen below.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Like Peckinpah, John Carpenter is, in general, a big influence on Wheatley and his latest movie. As in all of their movies are somewhat felt in and worth a look after you see Free Fire. Carpenter’s The Thing is another single-location, every man for himself sort of film, for instance. The original Assault on Precinct 13 gets to that point, as well, and like The Thing, this one should be noted as being inspired by a Howard Hawks film, namely Rio Bravo.
In a recent interview with Wheatley, The Skinny notes that a year ago the filmmaker mentioned to them that Assault on Precinct 13 was an influence on Free Fire. But that now he sees less of this movie in his own. ““It was all those kind of spare ‘70s movies,” Wheatley tells them. “I suppose Assault is one. But this is a bit fiddlier than Assault is, because ultimately it’s a bit more austere, and a modernist thing.”
Straight Time (1978) and Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978)
These two 1978 releases tend to be mentioned alongside Eddie Coyle as the biggest influences of that era on Free Fire. Straight Time stars Dustin Hoffman as a thief who tries unsuccessfully to go clean. Who’ll Stop the Rain is about an attempt to smuggle heroin out of Vietnam. As per Wheatley’s suggestion below, these two movies should be watched back to back.
“I would pair it with Straight Time or Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Wheatley tells Vanyaland of Free Fire’s best complement. “Evil Dead 2. That’d be better, wouldn’t it? It’s a bit more actiony, and Free Fire wouldn’t come off too well against two super cool films like that. Who’ll Stop the Rain and Straight Time, that should be the double bill.”
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Not only does Wheatley include this horror classic on that list of his favorite action movies, but he also keeps bringing it up in interviews as the movie he thinks Free Fire is most like – mixed with Tom and Jerry. As you can see above, he also thinks it’s the best to pair with Free Fire. Directed by Sam Raimi, it is of course a sequel to Evil Dead but doesn’t require viewing of the original first. Wheatley saw them out of order because the first movie was banned in the UK, but he considers Evil Dead 2 the “masterwork” anyway.
“It became more apparent as we were making it,” Wheatley tells Moviefone, “but that level of swinging the camera around and the slapstick elements of it. We were making it and thinking, ‘This is more Raimi than it is the cooler end of ’70s stuff.’ Because it was much more flying cameras and steadicams and techno-cranes and all of those things that weren’t likely to appear in a ’70s film because they weren’t invented.”
In the Line of Duty: The FBI Murders (1988)
Wheatley’s initial inspiration for Free Fire, as stated in multiple interviews, is the infamous 1986 shootout outside Miami between the FBI and a couple of bank robbers. The incident became a case study for law enforcement and inspired books, TV, and movies, including this TV movie depicting the robbery and gunfight. Among the true crime series episodes, I’d also recommend Real Vice Miami’s coverage, titled “Bloodiest Day.”
“I’d read a transcript of a shootout that happened in Miami in the ’80s between the F.B.I. and potential bank robbers,” Wheatley tells the New York Times. “It was a blow-by-blow account, and it was really fascinating, very different from anything I’d ever seen in a film. It was messy and complicated and quite slow. No one could hit anything. They were being injured but they weren’t dying instantly like you see in a movie. So I thought that there was a potential to make a movie that was an action film but much more personal and closer-range, incorporating this more realistic experience.”
The Killer (1989)
John Woo’s Hard Boiled is another one of Wheatley’s favorite action movies of all time and deserves a mention here for its influential shootouts. But since I included it in last week’s column for The Fate of the Furious, the next best and most appropriate Woo is The Killer. It’s also got a great shootout at the end is another of these kind of movies where nearly everybody dies.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
A bunch of criminals face off in a warehouse after plans go wrong is the description of Free Fire and Reservoir Dogs, and their endings are nearly identical. The biggest difference is that Quentin Tarantino’s movie contains a lot more context and clearer character development, mostly through the use of flashbacks. It also has more dialogue, less shooting. Of course, Quentin Tarantino was himself partially remaking City on Fire and influenced by many others. So you need to go back to his sources, yet I also recommend his other relevant movies, including True Romance, which he wrote and involves a climax like the entirety of Free Fire, and The Hateful Eight, which like Wheatley’s movie is set in one location.
“I think that a lot of films drink from the same pool,” Wheatley tells Forbes. “If you look at Quentin Tarantino’s work such as Reservoir Dogs there are touches of Howard Hawks stuff and films like The Killing and City on Fire. The reference points for Free Fire are also John Carpenter and Sam Peckinpah and directors like that. It was never a big worry about it, it was always going to be in that great sub-genre of things set in warehouses so it aligns with Reservoir Dogs a bit but it doesn’t really have anything massively in common with it.”
The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese, who executive produced Free Fire, is probably Wheatley’s biggest filmmaking hero. His Taxi Driver is regularly brought up as one of Wheatley’s favorites and most inspiring, with the final shootout being cited as significant to the new movie. Wheatley and DP Laurie Rose have also referenced Mean Streets, After Hours, and Goodfellas as influences on Free Fire. So why do I include The Departed instead of those older classics? Well, it’s set in Boston, has a warehouse deal scene, and it’s another movie where most characters die. It’s also a good gateway to the stuff that came before, not just Scorsese’s works but more Hong Kong films, which Wheatley loves. Specifically, The Departed is a remake of Infernal Affairs.
Green Room (2015)
If Wheatley has a complementary match out there right now, specifically a sort of American counterpart, it might be Jeremy Saulnier. Both filmmakers were being celebrated around the same time a year ago, when Green Room and Wheatley’s High-Rise both finally came out, but the former is more related to Wheatley’s latest in being about an unexpected clash of two groups of characters at an isolated location. They’re not a lot alike, with this movie lacking the humor and Free Fire, for one thing, but they’d still make a terrific double feature.
Here are some more movies that Wheatley has acknowledged as either an influence on Free Fire or, in his new Reddit AMA, as stuff to watch after Free Fire: The Killing, The French Connection, The Getaway, The Outfit, Watership Down, and The Terminator.