They say if you give a million chimpanzees typewriters they’ll eventually write the complete works of William Shakespeare. But that’s a crock designed to sell primate semen. You can, however, drop a handful of films into a blender, press “puree,” and pour the resulting mixture onto the screen under the guise of a whole new movie. Free Guy is the messy mixture in that scenario. And while it’s most definitely not Shakespeare, it does contain some very recognizable elements from older, better films.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank employee in Free City. While his days are repetitive, he’s happy all the same. He grabs coffee every morning with his best bud, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), greets everyone with a smile, and doesn’t bat an eye when the bank is robbed several times per day. Free City is filled with action, explosions, chases, and adventure. But Guy’s role is simply to wake up, drink coffee, go to work, and then head back home. That other stuff is only for the Sunglasses People — the people wearing sunglasses. Everyone else, Guy included, is supposed to just merely exist in the background.
That all changes, though, when Guy crosses paths with the sunglasses-wearing Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) and finds himself going off-script for the first time. She reveals he’s living in an online video game populated by NPCs (non-playable characters) like him. Then there are other characters played by people from the real world who are only there to blow shit up. It turns out there’s a lot more to Free City than Guy ever suspected. But if he doesn’t act fast there might soon be nothing left of it at all.
Most movies contain threads of older films in their DNA — we have a whole Movie DNA column celebrating that truth. But Free Guy is the unfortunate example that fails to add anything new. Nearly everything about it is lifted wholesale from such films as The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999), The Lego Movie (2014), They Live (1988), and others. Kids will love its empty blend of those better movies, but Free Guy is so busy being busy that it neglects to build character and narrative of its own. It does, however, deliver some laughs, fun cameos, and fast-moving CG objects.
The core concept — a cool woman arrives to “wake up” a bland dude who then becomes the hero — is nothing worth celebrating. But director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and writers Matt Lieberman (The Christmas Chronicles) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One) at least inject the journey with energy and a handful of surprises. No spoilers, but suffice to say Disney wants to remind you they own all your favorite pop culture memories. And they are more than happy to use them in exchange for the Holy Grail that is branded product recognition. Synergy!
There’s a lot happening on-screen at any given moment. Ironically for a film about a background player stepping onto center stage, the best is often happening… in the background. Guy’s casual walks through the city see absolute (but PG-13 rated) carnage unfolding behind him. Player characters engage in police chases, they battle robots, they carjack civilians, and more. It’s a Disney-fied Grand Theft Auto, and Guy is just living in it. To that end, Free Guy is very clearly a movie aimed at young gamers. The ones who like and subscribe to YouTube and Twitch feeds that are run by increasingly obnoxious streamers (some of whom cameo here as themselves, such as Tyler Blevins, a.k.a. Ninja). And who have never heard of Second Life.
The film’s momentum almost succeeds at distracting from the nearly two-hour running time. But it bogs down every time we leave Guy in favor of the people in the real world. Outside the game, there’s a chemistry-free romance and simplified corporate espionage. Also, streamers making it clear that YouTube doesn’t count as acting experience. Very little of it is interesting. Comer and co-star Joe Keery (Stranger Things) are fine performers, but they’re drowned out by the stunt casting of Taika Waititi as the game company’s CEO, Antoine. The otherwise entertaining filmmaker is given way too much screen time. And instead of reining him in it appears that Levy simply let him run wild. The result is a loud, unfunny brake-squeal every time Waititi starts riffing and ranting.
Free Guy isn’t quite the lost cause that it might seem, though, as it does manage some fun enough beats and a game performance from Reynolds. Sure, he’s once again riffing on the same likable, wise-cracking character he’s built a career on — it’s been six years since he last stretched with Mississippi Grind (2015)! But it works. He pairs well with both Comer and Howery. And when Guy does move into the action, Reynolds is more than capable of making it engaging. It’s something of a stretch to say the film has real heart, but it finds a passable simulation as it shifts into Truman Show territory with its themes of free will and self-determination.
There’s something very pie in the sky about the character goals and end message of Free Guy, and for a film aimed at gamers, it seems pretty oblivious to what that audience actually wants in a game. The movie imagines a game world without conflict, violence, or purpose. But it resorts to those very things in its attempt at achieving that goal. Does any of that really matter, though? Not every game has replay value. But if you pop your quarter in for a single play you’ll get your money’s worth here.
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