Everything’s not awesome in Free City. The citizens may look happy enough – especially this one chipper bank teller in a blue shirt named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) – but in reality, they’re being robbed, punched, kicked, shot at, and hit by cars on a daily basis. In fact, it’s so routine that when Guy’s bank gets held up, he doesn’t even pause his conversation with the security guard (Lil Rel Howery) as the two drop to the ground, doused in their daily shower of breakaway glass pebbles. This’ll all be over soon, and then it will happen again tomorrow.
The shout out to The Lego Movie in that first paragraph is no accident. There it was Emmett Brickowski, and in Free Guy, it’s Guy … well, just Guy. But you’ve got a very similar scenario where a cheery nobody suddenly realises his own agency with the assistance of an ass-kicker of a manic pixie dream girl (Jodie Comer), making a splash in his artificial world in which no one dares to stray from their programming.
In this case the programming is literal, as Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in a video game loosely based on something like Grand Theft Auto. The player characters are distinguished by their sunglasses, which show them all the ammo and health points and other rewards bobbing mid-air in the environment. One day Guy gets a pair, and his world changes.
Free Guy may never have existed in this exact form, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling overly familiar. And that’s not even counting its similarity to The Lego Movie, which the movie stops resembling so much after that opening. We’ve seen movies set inside video games, we’ve seen characters who start as non-entities become entities, we’ve seen movies where characters are continually reset to the start of the same day, as all the many variations on Groundhog Day in the past few years have done. Free Guy tries to be of the moment by involving real-life YouTubers who specialise in playing video games on their channels, and concentrating its outside-the-game story on an evil software company. But it’s really only dressing up the same ideas in new clothing. Shawn Levy is just the type of middle-of-the-road director you would expect to preside over all this.
There’s plenty of fun to be had within this framework, sure. Ryan Reynolds has become one of the most consistently entertaining presences in Hollywood, and his charm can take a movie much farther than it would get without him. Kudos also for casting Jodie Comer as a mousy programmer whose in-game avatar allows her all the power she doesn’t have in the real world, especially as this is a big departure from her character in Killing Eve. Comer’s about to become The Next Big Thing if she isn’t already. You just wish the movie they find themselves in didn’t feel so pro forma.
Not all the talent here is properly utilised, though. Taika Waititi appears as the dickhead owner of the evil software company, Antwan, who never turns down an opportunity to be cruel to his underlings or execute an underhanded scheme. That misses the essential playfulness of the actor-director, the world’s most effective delivery system for the unique comedy coming out of New Zealand. Even his occasional clever turn of phrase curdles under the weight of his oppressive personality.
In fact, Waititi, director of the last and next Thor movie, is one of the regrettable ways this film reminds us that it’s the latest product off the Disney assembly line. Part of the big finale – which has to do with whether the game will be wiped from server and all the characters lost, as you might imagine – involves repurposing some signature iconography from Marvel and Star Wars, two of Disney’s flagship properties. There’s a brief tingle of excitement when these things appear, replaced almost immediately by an awareness of the way the Mouse House is peddling its wares to you once again. Then it also reminds you of the other times it has done that, such as Ralph Breaks the Internet – another movie about the inner lives of video game characters.
It would be easy to get sufficient enjoyment from Free Guy if it were the first movie of its kind that you saw, and for some viewers, maybe it will be. There are a few moments that effectively play up the behavioural constraints of a non-player character, mining for laughs what we know about the roles these characters play in a video game narrative. For example, there’s one character whose duties so consistently require him to hold up his hands when held at gunpoint, that he finds himself unable to lower them, even when Guy is delivering a pep talk about fighting for his digital rights.
Which is a good way to segue into what Free Guy is about, thematically speaking. It’s apparently a way to encourage the wallflowers in the audience – represented here not only by the NPCs, but by real-world gamers who don’t engage with their real world – to assert their individuality, to not let life pass them by, to stand up to the malignant narcissist Kiwi video game magnates in their own lives who may be controlling them. Don’t be a non-player, be a player – but also, don’t just be a video game player, go smell the roses, digital or otherwise. Experience the real, or if you are experiencing the artificial, at least do it somewhere that isn’t full of bank robbers and blonde bombshells.
Sure, fine. Free Guy is entertaining if you don’t let it penetrate too deeply into your intellect. But it should be funnier and it should be more original, and if it weren’t the only new Hollywood tentpole available on a streaming service while most Australian cinemas are in their third month of lockdown, it might be worth passing on entirely.
Free Guy is currently available for streaming on Disney+.