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The Liberal Guilt of Unbridled Anticipation for Ben Wheatley’s ‘Free Fire’

By  · Published on April 19th, 2017

When everyone has a gun…no one’s in control.

It’s kind of amazing to me that every film that features a gun (let alone a full stockade of guns) is not a horror movie. In 2017 alone, over four thousand human beings have been killed as a result of a firearm. When John Wick unsheathes his Glock 26 and rampages through the club popping one headshot after another, we should be fleeing to the exits rather than shoveling the next load of popcorn into our face. Have we simply built an immunity to ballistic violence? Has the trauma of the nightly news numbed our compassion, or have we reached peak saturation on tragedy. “Tonight on News 7, another horrible event we must ignore to maintain our sanity.”

Ten years after a gunman stormed the Virginia Tech campus killing 32 individuals and wounding 17 others, I found myself flinching during the trailer for Ben Wheatley’s latest film, Free Fire. A locked room mystery ricocheting with a bonanza of bullets, Free Fire appears to be another stylish and antagonistic experience from the mischievously hostile director of Kill List and A Field In England. Wheatley’s films are crafted with a sharp edge of humor that cuts an angry smile across my face, and now that he’s lured an A-List cast of talent into his macabre sensibilities, I am greatly anticipating the pangs of rage they will unleash during this ballroom blitz.

I recognize that I have grown into a crazed, disgusted, horrified, and depressed liberal. As a cine-freak, I spend far too many hours trapped inside my head, contemplating the actions of fictional characters that I’ve fallen madly in love with. I am a child of the 80s, and as such, I am also someone who cannot help but feel the undeniable allure of the gun. I rewatch Schwarzenegger’s Commando on a yearly basis, and when we reach that climactic dressing of armaments, each fetishized ammunition insert sends a shiver of pleasure coursing through my veins. That film’s body count reaches fantastical heights of gory bravado that I dare say has yet to be matched in its joyous absurdity.

My childhood was an era defined by the cartoon cries of “Yo Joe!” Knowing was half the battle, and the other half was rupturing 3 ¾ action figures at the waist to recreate the most savage of world war battlefronts. G.I. Joe was a television program less concerned with telling a narrative then it was selling you their plastic soldiers. You picked your favorites based, of course, on their environmentally specific attire (Flame On, Barbecue!), but also on how closely you could replicate your cinematic warrior icons. No Joe quite matched Blaine’s handheld mini-gun from Predator, but Roadblock’s cannon came close enough.

We’re a nation of proud cowboys. We wrestled this land from its indigenous people, villainized them in our entertainment, and childhood games. We rose from the ruble of the Great Depression in thanks to a World War that established us as the nation with the greatest resources, the greatest might, and the greatest will. We cherish our underdog status even if said status was obliterated years back. Our entire ego as a country rests on our inability to back down.

We’ve long associated ourselves with the supremacy of the gun; our heroes, like my action figures, are defined by their weapons. From Jimmy Stewart’s prized rifle in Winchester ’73 to Dirty Harry’s most powerful handgun in the world, the .44 Magnum. Too often I find myself adopting the role of Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown, marveling and praising the artistry of a machine gun, “When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.” We all want to be The Killer.

Then you’ve got Die Hard. Us action movie maniacs can’t shut up about Die Hard. We have a serious hard-on for John McClane, the everyman hero who can kick a German terrorist’s ass without even wearing a pair of shoes. It’s the action movie I judge all others against. JCVD has the high kicks, Arnie has the muscles, and Sly has the guttural rage, but Bruce Willis has the squibs. Honestly, my initial hipstery bitterness towards John Wick was my gruesome admission that Wick’s digital headshots didn’t have the chunky-matter impact that John McClane delightfully delivered from his Berretta under the table.

I have a primordial hunger for carnage. It’s a taste I’ve spent years cultivating through a steady diet of Roger Corman trash cinema and Fangoria magazine. Since nearly half of our action films are spawned from the righteous violence of revenge, I want to see the bad guys vanquished in an equally ghastly manner. Clarence Boddicker rips police officer Alex Murphy’s body apart in a never-ending barrage of gunfire, and in return I scream with glee when the resurrected Robocop pops his neck, unleashing a fire hose of Karo syrup. But I’m not Tim Allen, and I should not define my morality around the caveman aesthetics of Tool Time.

Keith Maitland’s Tower documents the birth of a terrible American legacy, and is currently streaming on Netflix. On August 1st, 1966, a man climbed the University of Texas clock tower, opened fire, and killed 16 people over the course of 96 minutes. The film is a gut-wrenching, sometimes torturous watch as it slowly progresses through the snail’s pace in which the local police finally brought the terror to a close. The film does also give witness to the miniscule acts of heroism committed by neighbors to help the wounded and the dying. It’s impossible not to put yourself on that campus, find the person you would want to be, and fear the person you might actually be. Tower represents the very worst, and the very best of what humanity is capable of committing.

What should have been a one and done event in our history was simply the beginning of a gross national shame. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, UCC…to name a few. I offer no answers or reasons, but the reality of this genuine violence has seeped into my ability to enjoy a good ol’ fashioned shoot-out. Or at least, I am starting to awkwardly catch myself in disgust just as my Tim Allen-self starts grunting for that John Wick blood lust.

There’s something sportsman-like about an action movie. Headshot – 2 Points! Our team vs. their team, good guy vs. bad guy. The narrative gives us a hero to root for, and the cathartic release of victory is a happiness rarely equaled in our daily lives. But I can never return to that trouble-free childish thirst for violence. I can’t get out of my head.

Yes, I am greatly anticipating Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. The man makes provocative flicks, rich with artistry, and they usually contain one image impossible to shake (I’m thinking of Kill List’s wicker showdown, A Field In England’s psychedelic freak out, High Rise’s meaty skull flap). However, when Free Fire’s trailer slaps you with the tagline, “When everyone has a gun…no one’s in control” I am sent hurtling back to the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)