The challenge I’ve always put to filmmakers who choose to adapt a video game into a movie is to make it accessible to someone who has never played a modern video game. The examples of failed attempts at video game adaptation are legion, so the idea behind the new film from director Shawn Levy is intriguing: make a movie set primarily in a video game environment that isn’t based on a specific game. In fact, the lead character of Free Guy isn’t even a front-and-center game character; instead, he’s an NPC (non-player character)—basically a background character not controlled by a player—named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). He goes through his limited-scope life of waking up, going to work as a bank teller, and waiting for the bank to get robbed by whomever is playing the game that day. And then one day, he decides to rewrite his own story and capture the hearts and minds of millions of players in the process.
In Guy’s world, violence, crime and killing is just part of the landscape. He has a routine that does not change, but that doesn’t stop him from seeing the woman of his dreams (Jodie Comer as a character called Molotov Girl, but whose real name is Millie), a singular event that changes his routine forever. He follows her and realizes she’s a complete badass. Molotov Girl is one of the sunglass people (anyone in the game who is a player is identified by their sunglasses), and according to some unwritten rule, those (NPC) people who don’t wear them don’t speak to those who do. But Guy talks to Millie’s character because he can’t help himself. When the programmers notice Guy breaking from his routine, they assume some clever player has disguised themselves as an NPC just to make things interesting. But when they suspect something is amiss, two problem solvers named Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and Keys (Joe Keery) go into the game to take Guy out permanently. They kill him, but because he’s a real NPC, he comes back the next morning.
The visual scheme of Free Guy is pretty impressive. When Guy puts on glasses, he can see his world for what it is—a video game world complete with dollar amounts and other prizes floating around the city, waiting to be grabbed or won. The landscape is colorful, vibrant, and highly active, so it’s a bit overwhelming at first. But as he gets to know Millie’s character, he encourages himself to be a free thinker and be in charge of his own story. The more independent Guy becomes, the more other players begin to watch his every unpredictable move, finding him inspirational. The film features many cutaways to real-life famous online gaming personalities watching, playing and commenting on the game, which will probably mean a great deal to viewers younger than I.
The head of the video game company, Antoine (Taika Waititi), at first finds Guy intriguing, if only because he’s bringing so many new eyes to his game. But since he’s about to launch a new version of the popular game, Guy can’t make the transition into 2.0, so he attempts to have the character removed permanently as the game is relaunching. Another interesting twist in the game and the film’s story is that Millie turns out to be a programmer who invented a game a few years earlier that Antoine stole the algorithm to and is now using it for his game. The fact that Guy is capable of free thought is a direct result of this earlier game, in which characters were meant to simply co-exist and work together and not fight. Millie is actually playing the game in the hopes of finding evidence of her original code in the game and prove that Antoine stole the work she just happens to have worked on with none other than Keys, who took the buyout and prospects of a better job, but is starting to doubt his choices after realizing what a greedy bastard Antoine is. As much as I love Waititi as a filmmaker and actor, his portrayal as an evil corporate game designer has fewer dimensions than most of the characters in this game.
There are none-too-subtle messages in Free Guy about being your own person, taking control of your life, and being the hero in your own story, but they all get a bit lost in the midst of some admittedly funny gags, often involving the IP the filmmakers had access to (this is a Fox Studios movie, which means it’s owned by Disney). It isn’t Space Jam or Ready Player One kind of bold self-promotion. The best parts of the movie involve the conversations between Guy and Molotov Girl, which are part getting to know each other, part him slowly coming to realize that he’s a character and she isn’t. But mostly, they just have a chemistry that makes their time together seem comfortable and a place to escape the violent world of the game.
I don’t really care if Free Guy feels like a real game, but the film is so freewheeling with the way games are designed and launched that it all feels like junk programming and bad writing. If I’m making the film seem too serious, rest assured, Reynolds and his cohorts (namely Lil Rel Howery as Guy’s best friend Buddy) are just here to make us laugh. Reynolds playing Guy as ultra-sincere and hopelessly optimistic is actually a pleasant switch from his Deadpool personality. One sequence in which Guy comes face to face with his Version 2.0 from the new game, named Dude, is equal parts disturbing and hilarious.
Director Levy (who helmed all of the Night at the Museum movies, Date Night, and Real Steel, among many others) has a style that is tough to define but easy to spot. He tends to throw a lot at audiences, hoping some percentage of the jokes and moments land. There are some funny cameos tossed in because Levy can pull that kind of star power (an extended sequence featuring Channing Tatum as a character named Avatar is one of the funniest things in the entire movie), but the film belongs to Reynolds and Comer’s highly likable energy, both separately and combined. I’m not big on leaving your brain at the door in the name of enjoying a movie, but Free Guy allows its big, dumb fun to happen without forcing one to kill brain cells in order to enjoy it.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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