Video game film adaptations are usually not great (I mean, I loved Assassin’s Creed, but it absolutely wasn’t the best film I’d seen that year nor was it a classic). FIlm adaptations of books that lean heavily on video games from history aren’t usually that good either (Ready Player One was a film that actually benefitted from being in 3D when I saw it, and that was worse on a normal TV).
What does any of that have to do with Free Guy? Well this film is a video game movie – but a film and recognisable story that harks back to video games, rather than being based on one or another. This does set it apart a little, and it’s stupid fun (with some weirdly deep focuses on AI and corporate skulduggery), though if you’ve seen The Truman Show you’ll start to see the similarities almost immediately, and it arguably only skims the surface of the themes that that film so expertly covered.
In the strangely chaotic Free City, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) goes about his repetitive daily life working at a bank that’s always held up, without fail, by sunglass-wearing criminals (who also routinely smash up the city and raise hell). One day, Guy spots one of these people, a woman with the name ‘Molotov Girl’ (Jodie Comer), and falls hopelessly in love with her: but Guy is a non-playable character (NPC) within the game Free City, created by Molotov Girl’s real-world equivalent Millie. As Guy starts to exhibit distinctly non-NPC behaviour to try and impress her, Millie and others in the real world fight to expose corporate criminality related to the game.
It’s worth noting that by not being connected to a real game, Free Guy has the ability to take what it wants from all sorts of famous games. It owes a big debt to Grand Theft Auto for obvious reasons, but this is the sort of film that will be easter-egg heaven for gamers when they can pause each scene to spot references in the background. You can tell it’s a film made by people who enjoy playing games, but beyond that it’s very shallow (except for its aforementioned odd pivots into AI and corporate crimes).
Director Shawn Levy’s filmography is very much “shiny kids films”, and he brings that sunny chaos to Free Guy, with the video game nature of the plot meaning violence is fleeting, bloodless and largely inconsequential. However, the screenplay from Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn gets surprisingly interesting when it focuses in on the morality of how gamers treat NPCs, with some deep points made on this subject. It is, though, surface-deep – don’t expect to come out revelling about interesting new ideas or perspectives – and only in the culmination of its love story does it subvert any expectations at all.
Everything barrels along and it’s largely good-natured, hilarious fun, though. It’s helped by the fact that Reynolds is playing a largely snark-less version of his usual character, which makes for a pleasant change. Guy is eternally optimistic, even when he’s knocked back, and removing his more grating cynical side benefits the movie. His interplay with his friend played by Lil Rel Howery is sweet and stupid, and in moments like this the film was actually quite reminiscent of The Lego Movie’s bouncy optimism.
As mentioned, its notion of AI being built into games, and evolving within a game as well, is quite a novel take (especially as it’s not malevolent), while the outside world plot is shot through with nerdy, geeky and quite serious gamer and tech talk. If the film stumbles, it’s when it flits between the two worlds.
Free City is bright, shiny anarchy, George Richmond’s cinematography painting a beautifully zany, neon-infused mad world full of idiot gamers blasting each other away with all manner of ridiculous weapons. The real world is greyer, duller, less interesting – and as surprisingly adult as the subplot is with Comer’s game designer wanting to get even with the scumbag who stole her code, it makes for surface-level intrigue, and is not as exciting.
Comer does her level best to try to make that side of things more interesting, and British TV’s best kept secret is now well on her way into the upper reaches of Hollywood with this film. Far beneath what she usually does, Comer invests Molotov Girl and Milly with impressively different, yet convincing (non-Scouse!) accents, and is convincing and excellent at conveying her character’s drive and sincerity even with what little she has to work with here. Her interplay with Reynolds is great, as it is with her fellow wronged game designer Walter/’Keys’, played by Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery.
Keery is the sort of moral centrepoint to the film, and the actor is believably conflicted as the guy who sold out who now realises (too late?) that he’s compromised a lot to do so. His handle on comedy, as seen in Stranger Things, stands the real world subplot in good stead, as does his interplay with the permanently unfazed, unruffled suck-up Mouser, memorably and smarmily played by Utkarsh Ambudkar.
When it comes to an antagonist however, we have an unhinged Taika Waititi as the ridiculously over-the-top games company boss Antwon. Waititi oozes ignorance and filthy-rich idiocy as the money-obsessed, corporate piece of shit responsible for the game and its success. Rocking ridiculous clothing you just KNOW people like this character would actually wear, and spouting evil corporate crap about monetising games, the Kiwi actor basically devours every scene and hams it up to 11.
I think in a way that his character is a good example of what irked me about the film. It’s got a good premise, it’s not got the pressure of adaptation on its back – but it tries to be too many things to too many people. Waititi’s zany, awful antagonist is hilarious, but Keery and Comer’s noble crusade is serious – and then Guy’s madcap adventures in the game world interspersed with this is like another film spliced in completely. When it all comes together, and when you might think it might be something interestingly new, it’s very predictable, and the references and cameos can overwhelm.
Having mentioned gaming references, there are some heavy-duty film and popular culture references as well, which will either entertain or cause you to groan. At the film’s climax, two come out of nowhere, with musical accompaniment AND a huge cameo – it all feels a bit tacked on, but look into which studio now owns this film (the movie studio formerly known as Fox originally made it, if you need a hint) and it all makes more ($$$$$$$$$) sense.
Christophe Beck’s score is forgettable (a shame given his memorable work for Marvel), but sticking to the technical side of things, Dean Zimmerman’s editing is quite well done, especially when dropping between the game and reality. The CGI is quite obvious, but then working with a story like this, it sort of has to be – and there aren’t really any action scenes that are particularly memorable given – again – that it’s a video game world, so it doesn’t even need to look real. There’s no real peril but at the same time, not much weight to the action. It just looks good because it has to in the moment.
I did enjoy Free Guy, but particularly because as a gamer I knew a lot of the references being made and because despite its often stupid humour, there were some genuine laughs to be had. It all feels very popcorn and forgettable, which is – I suppose – what it was setting out to be. Just don’t expect too much, is my advice! In essence though, it’ll be hard to beat in the realms of the video game movie – perhaps because it avoids the adaptation baggage!