Sidestepping the generally less than stellar video game adaptation sub-genre, Free Guy is a part of the more successfully realized set of films inspired by video games. Feeling equal parts Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie, there’s an inspired concept at play that fully integrates the audience into a world primarily seen by people absorbed into whatever open-world online game they enjoy via console or PC. Fortunately, thanks to multiple winning performances, including a very affable Ryan Reynolds, once Free Guy gets going, it’s able to forge its own path and, for the most part, deliver a good amount of fun.
Reynolds stars as Guy, a non-playable character (NPC) living in Free City. In this video game, players enter the map and roam around, taking on various missions that generally involve heists, car chases, and shooting it out with other players and NPCs. Against all odds, Guy manages to break his programmed routine, becoming self-aware enough to grow as a character. This is inspired by a player he sees in the game, Molotov Girl, aka Millie (Jodie Comer). Guy is instantly infatuated with her, leading him on a journey to level up to get her attention, becoming a hero of the gaming world in the process.
I’m a gamer. There’s plenty to enjoy in the wide variety of video games out there. It’s not necessarily essential to note, but it does add to what I take away from films and TV shows that want to incorporate gaming to some degree. Sometimes you have filmmakers who clearly understand the material and find clever ways to incorporate what feels familiar. Other times there are films that feel like someone has come into the arena with little basis for what they are talking about. Free Guy feels like it has it both ways.
With respect to director Shawn Levy, I felt that when branching off the core story and trying to bring in certain elements, gamers may be less impressed with some of the gag choices. Still, the many broad jokes are occasionally funny. To Levy’s credit, as the filmmaker behind the Night at the Museum trilogy, he certainly has a decent eye for bringing together humorous performances and large-scale special effects.
On the other hand, while screenwriter Matt Lieberman’s credits don’t suggest much of a video game background, co-screenwriter Zak Penn did adapt Ready Player One, which has a lot in common with this film. Does any of this mean anything? Well, it comes down to what one may be looking for in this nearly two-hour film that packs in a lot of story, as well as ideas.
Naturally, given the premise of a video game character self-actualizing, it speaks to themes involving life, free will, and more. Should I expect those concepts to be explored in meaningful ways? No, however, the film is at its best in its middle section, as the comedic action involving Guy going through the process of leveling up his character and challenging the rules of Free City is fun to watch. Plus, it has the addition of letting Guy inspire other characters to realize they can be more than their programming.
Reynolds is in complete charm mode here. Unlike Deadpool, this is not the smarmy, sarcastic Reynolds. Instead, we have an incredibly earnest and naïve Reynolds, who holds onto a sense of wonder. I’ll get to the human characters, but within the game, we see how he lives his programmed life and what changes as he begins to essentially triumph in the game. Through all of this, he has a friendship with Buddy (a winning Lil Rel Howery), another NPC. In a film with a couple of emotional cores, perhaps the most human elements come from Buddy trying to relate with Guy.
Of course, the film also takes us into the real world, where we not only get a further understanding of who Millie is but what she’s doing in Free City. It has to do with a game design she developed with her best friend Keys (Joe Keery, still rocking his Stranger Things hair) and how the two may have unwittingly lucked into something with Guy. Comer does well in her first major film role after breaking out on TV’s Killing Eve, and the film does well to capitalize on what she can add in a movie involving a shooter, which generally involves a certain kind of gamer.
On top of that, however, Free Guy also features a villainous video game company CEO, played hilariously by Taika Waititi. He attempts to steal the whole film nearly every time he’s on screen. As Antwan, he’s working in the best interests of himself, which means profiting off of Guy’s popularity until it no longer fits his business plans. It’s a predictable part, but the amount of leeway afforded to Waititi means getting a variety of great one-liners.
While not unsuccessful in wrapping a capable enough plot around the real-world aspects of the story, I couldn’t help but think about the various stances Free Guy is taking, based on how optimistic they are. As this is a movie meant to appeal to a broad audience, I can understand how it can’t delve into the dark side of gaming (though it hints at it). Still, there is a sense that Levy and the team want to push a position on shooting games and how corporations think when it comes to what audiences will respond to favorably. Will it leave an impact? Not really, but, again, it can feel like window-dressing when acknowledging all the action taking place.
For a film that is primarily a comedy, there are copious amounts of visceral video game thrills often played out in a mundane manner. I enjoyed that. It’s fun to see Guy or whoever walking through town while guys with bazookas are firing out of the back of their trucks at helicopters chasing them down. Even when the film’s climax gets decidedly more focused on destructive video game action, there’s plenty of visual inventiveness to help it work well. Closer combat is pretty whatever, but Levy’s inability to get away from a fairly clean visual aesthetic is at least less of a fault, given the video game world these characters inhabit.
Ultimately, Free Guy’s success comes down to the film’s ability to entertain. I didn’t quite find myself on board until Guy’s understandings of his world started to ramp up, but there is fun to be had with this ambitious premise, even if the script plays more to the all-audiences crowd more often than not, sanding off any level of edge in the process. Reynolds is in fine form here, and he and Comer do plenty to hold much of this film together. Finally, considering where the world is with gaming, Free Guy finds a way to serve as a solid homage to a few video games rolled into one. It may not always feel the most up-to-date in how it uses that setting, but there’s enough cleverness here that pushed the film towards the next level.