Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Joe Keery & Lil Rel Howery
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios
Release Date: August 2021
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: When a bank teller discovers he’s actually a background player in an open-world video game, he decides to become the hero of his own story — one that he can rewrite himself. In a world where there’s no limits, he’s determined to save the day his way before it’s too late, and maybe find a little romance with the coder who conceived him.
The term “videogame movie” has some negative connotations with it, bringing to mind some awful clangers such as Doom, Hitman, Max Payne; or some more divisive options such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Super Mario Bros. (a personal favourite of mine, don’t judge!). Often these adaptations fail to capture the same energy of the videogames themselves, leaving purists disappointed and non-gamers nonplussed. Free Guy side-steps this trap by avoiding existing IPs and instead celebrating the world of videogames, similar in tone to Wreck-it Ralph, although where Wreck-it Ralph celebrated the nostalgia of 80s arcade machines, Free Guy tackles the modern phenomenon of online shooters and multiplayer arenas.
Inspired by the likes of Grand Theft Auto Online and Fortnite, the virtual city at the heart of Free Guy is a digital playground where garishly-dressed avatars wreak havoc upon each other and the innocent NPCs (non-player characters) that populate the computer-generated metropolis. For these background characters, the constant hit-and-runs, bank robberies and bazooka explosions form part of their everyday routine as they live their lives blissfully unaware that they are in a videogame. This hyper-reality feels reminiscent of The Truman Show as the inhabitants accept their bizarre existence as normal. There are also hints of Groundhog Day as the characters find themselves trapped in an eternal loop reliving the same daily routine again-and-again, complete with the same alarm clock routine montage to kickstart each new loop.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller who inadvertently discovers the truth of his existence and begins to step outside of his predetermined role to become an active player of the game. Reynolds is fantastic as the surprisingly earnest Guy, and it is a joy to watch him transition from one-dimensional NPC to a fully-realised AI as he gets to grips with the mechanics of his virtual world. He also plays Guy as naïve as opposed to the wiseass persona he typically adopts in his comedic performances and this subtle shift results in a more uplifting tone for the film. The ‘love story’ between him and Jodie Comer’s Molotov Girl was genuinely sweet and formed an emotional core for the action to resonate from. While she is famous for her role in Killing Eve, I was unfamiliar to Comer prior to this film, but she did a great job in the dual role of Molotov Girl and her real-life counterpart Millie, displaying some subtle differences between the two characters.
Joe Keery (aka Steve from Stranger Things) is relegated mainly to exposition, although there is a fun sequence when he becomes a “stripper policeman” in an attempt to investigate Guy’s interference within the game. He is a likeable actor, but doesn’t really get too much opportunities to shine in this film with Comer taking the co-lead role and screentime away from him. The supporting actors on the whole give strong performances, but I found Taika Waititi to be particularly irritating as the smug and eccentric boss of Soonami. I get that he was supposed to be annoying as the antagonist of the film, but I found myself less angry at the character and more at Waititi’s performance choices. I feel that the role would have been better if it had been played straight, rather than attempting to inject some outlandish personality to the character.
The world of Free City looks instantly familiar to anyone who has played a videogame in the last five years; especially the quirky avatars that run around the city causing explosions and car crashes. With the popularity of Fortnite, the gaming industry has shifted towards this free-to-play model with an emphasis on micro-transactions, customisable avatars and multiplayer combat. Free Guy celebrates the modern state of gaming, including references to streamers (none of which I knew!) and the desire for players to express their individuality by purchasing an overpriced skin or dance move. The satire is in good spirits and while the film gently references the recent over-commercialism of video gaming through Waititi’s over-the-top character, it doesn’t really make much judgment on this aspect of the industry. The film opts instead to be accessible to all audiences, and I was impressed at how quickly it established its central premise and clearly explained the technical elements without confusing the casual viewer.
Blending together the best bits from Wreck-it Ralph, The Truman Show, The Matrix and Groundhog Day into a “false reality flavoured milkshake”, Free Guy is an extremely well-observed love letter to the online gaming genre that has some real heart behind the laughs. I can’t imagine anyone else but Ryan Reynolds in this role as he imbues the character of Guy with a charm that makes him instantly likeable and relatable. While there are some subtle references to existing games, the film avoids becoming a checklist of Easter Eggs and concentrates more on its plot. As a result, there’s an uplifting tenderness to the film that I didn’t expect to see, especially given its online gaming origins, but it definitely lingers in the mind long afterwards, not unlike the Mariah Carey song “Fantasy”, which seemed to play on repeat throughout the film!
A fresh take on the “videogame movie”, Free Guy squeezes every ounce of fun out of its imaginative concept and will leave you with smiling before the end-credits roll.