‘Free Fire’ hits humor, style right on target: An interview with Sharlto Copley

Franchesca Spektor/Staff

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Ben Wheatley’s latest film, “Free Fire,” features an ensemble cast and an aura exuding suave theatricality. The film is saturated with brilliant one-liners and hilarious misfires that ooze with ironic sophistication.

“Free Fire” isn’t concerned with plot development or redeeming the vulgarity of its characters, but once it begins, we’re hooked regardless. It’s a gun show, a competition of masculine one-upmanship, in which no man is a good marksman. Who has the greatest aim? Justine (Brie Larson).

Arguably, though, it’s Sharlto Copley as Vernon who hits comical moments on the head. Copley stated that co-writers Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley gave the cast perfect catalysts for their own humor. “There was a version of Vernon, when we were discussing earlier on, where he might have been the silent, lethal type,” Copley said. “But then, looking at what everyone else was playing, and you had Cillian (Murphy) in there doing amazing stuff and Michael Smiley, and you only had crazy on Sam Riley … he’s going a bit nuts there. It felt like there had to be a character that was a little bit unhinged in the main group as well, in that sort of leadership group.”

Delivery and timing in this film are made even more impressive by the fact that much of the film was improvised by the cast. “The process of improv, for me, is just always looking for those moments and looking for ways of throwing stuff at other actors,” said Copley. “I’ll never forget Noah Taylor, when I crawled under the van and I was like, ‘I’ll give you my Rolex if you give me the case.’… and he just comes instantly back with, ‘Your Rolex is fake, boss.’ I was like, ‘God, Noah, that’s beautiful’ … It makes it fun for everybody to throw those moments in.”

The cast shares a chemistry that simmers through both serious and comedic moments. “You work out the dramatic points of tension between the characters and try and improvise around those,” said Copley. “It felt more like working on a play or something for the group dynamic. … When we weren’t on camera, we were all just hanging around playing table tennis.”

Vernon is cleverly set up by Justine, who tells Chris (Cillian Murphy): “Vernon was misdiagnosed as a child genius, and he never got over it.” It’s one of the best lines in the film, and Copley says it formed the foundation for his character. “That informed a lot, and what was great about developing the character was I got to do that in a very collaborative way with Ben and Amy,” Copley said. “It (was fitting) that he would then think that he was tougher than he was and more competent than he is.”

The result of that collaboration is a character with a hilariously overinflated ego and absolutely terrible aim.

Copley stated that much of his character development happens in the moment. “I work almost from the inside out for a character,” explained Copley. “For me, it’s almost like an energetic thing. I start with the voice and just subconsciously and sometimes consciously (bring in) influences of people in my life or things that I’ve seen, and start to be like, ‘that would be an interesting character.’ ”

Vernon is really put through the ringer in this film — and the stunts were practical. “I was laughing ‘cause I had done two movies in trash heaps. It was a step up for me to be inside crawling through dirt,” Copley joked.

The film achieves endearing characters that will make audiences both roar with laughter and want to pull their hair out. Part of what’s so magnificent about “Free Fire” is that it gets viewers invested without any particular narrative trajectory. The majority of the film takes place in an abandoned warehouse, but Wheatley’s direction constructs a maze-like space through long takes and weaving camerawork. We can’t take our eyes off of the screen, because there’s a chance that, for once, these characters won’t have terrible aim — there’s a lot of wasted bullets here — and will hit another character right on target.

The film has some clear parallels with Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs” — both films star an ensemble cast of gangsters who end up trapped in a very small space, covered in blood. What makes Wheatley’s film stand out also makes it arguably more attractive: It has just as much wit, with more style. “Free Fire” is the embodiment of 1970s “cool.” Each character in “Free Fire” can and should be psychoanalyzed, because their priorities are all off, and that makes this film all the more entertaining. It might share a premise with Tarantino’s film, but “Free Fire” turns it up 10,000 notches: more deception between characters, more fire and even more brilliance.

“(Ben Wheatley) is a unique filmmaker,” said Copley. “He’ll take something, but it’s not quite what you’re used to. He might surprise you.”

“Free Fire” opens tonight at UA Berkeley 7.

Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].