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Jeff Simon: In today's movies, is there such a thing as 'too much'?

Jeff Simon

Ben Wheatley laughed.

We were talking about the excesses and extremist lunacy of his film "Free Fire" in which the final hour is nothing but a long gunfight with 16 gun-toting combatants played out in "real time."

I tell him that just before seeing his movie, I'd seen "The Fate of the Furious" in which there was a grandly orchestrated scene of car mayhem in which a raging torrent of automobiles spills out of the upper floors of a parking garage onto the streets below. The very idea of it, as I told him about it, made him laugh as hard as I did when I saw it happen in the film.

Welcome to the movies of 2017, where, to paraphrase a politician, extremism in defense of cinematic joy is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of entertainment is no virtue.

Rivers of cars pouring out of multi-tiered parking garages and crashing into one another on congested city streets to create a new kind of traffic jam? Why not? A 90-minute film in which a full hour of it is nothing but 16 of the stupidest knuckleheads in New England shooting each other with such terrible marksmanship that they keep hitting nonessential body parts?

Which means that they are thereby allowed to crawl, slither and gimp around a deserted warehouse while they keep shooting each other with comically escalating ineffectuality.

It's all positively nutso. And crazily funny. And riotously entertaining in the way that only brazen excess can be.

Wheatley, on the phone, explained that the whole thing came from an FBI report of a real event that he had read once. It involved a Miami shootout.

"I think it was a bank robbery .. and a shootout ensued." He said the FBI report contained, "all kinds of details about what the injuries were. I was fascinated by it. I was reading this thing and all the forensic details went on and on for a long time. And it was like nothing I'd ever seen in a film. So it was an epiphany."

And the wheels started turning, resulting in Wheatley and his wife, co-writer Amy Jump, writing the film.

Along the way, the idea was magnetic enough to pick up the patronage of Martin Scorsese who functioned as an executive producer. That means Scorsese helped secure financing and the right casting and in general acted as Wheatley's rabbi during the planning and shooting of a film which was, in its way, a difficult one to make.

The way Wheatley describes his relationship with the legendary filmmaker is that "I'm a horrible revolting fanboy of his. It took an act of will to keep myself under control (meeting him the first time). As a film fan, it's almost a transcendental experience. But he's still a man."

Wheatley admits Scorsese was partly responsible for him becoming a filmmaker in the first place. Having Scorsese around to advice him during the making of "Free Fire" was a rarity. Compared to having to deal with a studio executive, it was like being steadied by "a kindly hand rather than a niggling presence."

Where does all this droll movie excess come from?

Consider Toronto's Varsity Theater a quarter of a century ago. It was, in 1991, a shabby, dirty and unhealthy room to begin with but, on this day, it was so full of people that some were trying to sit on the floor. It's a "Press and Industry Screening" for the film that was that year's buzz champion, Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

The room is packed with "press and industry" people from all over the world -- people who don't give a fig for luxury or comfort when the prospect of seeing a great film is nigh. Rex Reed sat directly behind me. Filmmaker Brian DePalma sat a couple seats in front of me and to the left. By the time we were all watching Michael Madsen merrily dancing around to Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" and slicing a bound cop's ear off, it was obvious that we were experiencing a new way of portraying movie criminals and the violent, sadistic things they do.

If sadism wasn't a defining characteristic of their endeavors, stupidity might be. That notion fully entered the pop cultural worldview in 1985 with the advent of the Coen Brothers' first film "Blood Simple." But some other things happened in that theater on that day.

--- Film Festivals -- and the kind of international "Press and Industry" people they attract -- were confirmed as a new audience for cinematic innovation in commercial films (not just art films.) In this case, it was ultra-violent excess conveyed with sardonic humor.

--- A new kind of film intellectual was born. Tarantino was a film intellectual from the video store, not the library or the cinematheque. There was very little that was bookish about him. He'd seen all these movies because he was a store clerk, not because a library told him to and a cinematheque scheduled them for him to see.

Wheatley likes to tell people that he's influenced by Tom and Jerry. He is, himself, a former animator. "Free Fire" then is taken from all kinds of sources, he said. "Silent cinema. And Hanna Barbera cartoons. And things like that." And it's what happens when you take it all "full throttle."

That's because in the movies of 2017, "full throttle" visuals don't have to be translated into other languages. Accents are so thick in "Free Fire" that a good 25 percent of the dialogue is incoherent. It scarcely matters. You know what you're watching, whether you live in Roanoke or Rangoon or Reykjavik.

When you've had part of a career in animation, you're familiar with a movie world of violence that doesn't affect characters. Think of all the things that happened over the decades to poor Wile E. Coyote in Chuck Jones' seven-minute masterworks about The Road Runner.

At the same time, Wheatley points out that there's a crazy kind of realism to "Free Fire" -- the difficulty, for instance, of hitting a moving target when you're shooting, and the ability of people to keep going after getting hit with many gunshots. "It's not unrealistic," says the man whose basic idea for the movie came from an FBI report talking about that very thing.

And, as he says, nice things and happy endings are "well-covered in America" at the movies and on TV, but "actual reality is not so well covered."

He identifies the ideal children's cutoff age for seeing the film as "15" or, as he puts it "a soft 15" rather than the kind of 15 that should label a film like Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge."

What is here to stay, clearly, is cinematic globalism.

"The Fate of the Furious" brought more than half a billion dollars in its first week of international box office. Its American box office was huge but a drop in the bucket compared to the international revenue.

"Free Fire" is a British movie set in Boston directed by a Brit and featuring actors from the United States, Ireland, England and South Africa and meant to be rollicking entertainment wherever people enjoy watching very bad things happen to very stupid people.

Worrying about where this might go with all of us from here is probably a very good idea.

But so, at the moment, is admitting the entertainment value of watching ingenious excesses in our movies, somewhat incredibly, reach new heights.

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