Ryan Reynolds is a slave to the game in Free Guy, the new film by director Shawn Levy and from Disney subsidiary 20th Century Studios (née Fox.) He plays a humble bank teller and non-playable character in video game Free City trying to earn free will, become the hero and save the game from shutdown after it is revealed that the game’s quirky and arrogant creator Antoine (Taika Waititi) plans on scrapping the original once the sequel comes out.
As explained to me by a gamer I love, Free City is essentially GTA Online with heavy doses of Fortnite thrown in. ‘Sunglasses people’ drop into the map from above and are recognised by the NPCs as being different to them. They are the human players, and they get to treat these other background characters however they wish. That’s the way it’s always been, until Guy (Reynolds) veers from the path and tells a very attractive and British sunglasses lady (Jodie Comer) that he loves the ‘vintage Mariah Carey’ tune she’s singing. Thus begins Guy’s arc from Chief NPC to fully realised AI whose autonomy is crucial in saving Free City from its impending termination. He is helped along the way by two independent game creators – Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie (workaholic Jodie Comer) – whose original concept was stolen and bastardised by Antoine.
The film opens with a look into Guy’s daily routine and it’s immediately clear that we’ve seen this before – it’s The Lego Movie, but ironically less life-like. He says ‘good morning’ to his goldfish, orders his medium coffee with cream and two sugars (good God, America) and goes to work at the bank, where he and his best friend Buddy are very used to lying happily on the floor as they brace for the first of many robberies that will take place throughout the day. Reynolds does his absolute best and is very believable as the affable Guy but one can’t help but feel that this is just a castrated Deadpool.
Guy’s gateway to heroism begins when he takes a player’s sunglasses and sees for himself the parts of the game previously inaccessible. It’s very bright and shiny, but it didn’t feel remotely to me like an actual video game. While I can’t comment too much on the accuracy of the technical or game-feel aspects of the film I can at least recognise when something is off, having been a backseat gamer to some really excellent story-based games (and having found great tranquility as a youngster in perching myself on a rooftop in GTA III and shooting the legs off pedestrians.) There don’t seem to be any rules to Free City – I frequently found myself turning to my gaming brains trust throughout Free Guy to ask “is that a thing that can happen?” and the response was almost always a disappointed head shake.
For me the biggest strength is Jodie Comer – her commitment to both of her characters is unwavering and she gives a touch of class that would’ve been lacking without her presence. Her chemistry with Reynolds and Keery brings humanity to the story but ultimately isn’t enough to stop Free Guy from feeling more like a product than a film.
As the movie went on the obvious presence of Disney IP became too much for me to bear. I can forgive the Avengers posters plastered on walls (it is omnipresent in our culture now after all) but there were several acquired property tie-ins toward the end that crescendoed into an all-out wankfest and I just wanted to leave. When Space Jam: A New Legacy pulled that move recently, people absolutely skewered it. I find it odd that one corporate film can get away with such antics (people actually cheered at some of the more sickening plugs in Free Guy) and another cannot.
I also couldn’t figure out whether some of the characterisations (Waititi’s Antoine, who only cares about profit and what the test groups say) were odd attempts at self-deprecation from Disney or if they genuinely don’t realise that they are becoming Antoine. If the former, it’s an unsuccessful humblebrag. If the latter, it’s a little bit delusional. The storyline of two independent game creators being split apart because one sticks to her guns and the other succumbs to corporate pressure was also handled much better in Mythic Quest’s phenomenal standalone episode “A Dark Quiet Death”. It’s a real shame that Disney couldn’t inject more soul into that aspect of the film as they’ve been more than capable on multiple occasions of making me sob over the relationships of animated characters (I’m looking at you, first ten minutes of Up.)
The marketing for Free Guy featured a trailer reaction video from Reynolds as Deadpool and Waititi as Korg (from the MCU) and I watched cheerily (prior to seeing the film) as two actors I like poked fun at themselves and their employer in this big in-joke. Deadpool then says “this looks fun – in a last-days-of-Fox firesale kind of way” and the sugar turned sour in my mouth. I thought of The Huddle from the first game I truly felt invested in – Playdead’s Inside. Simply put, it is a mass of human flesh and organs squished into a giant hivemind blob that collects more and more human flesh as it boulders its way around. As it gets larger its ability to control the minds of other beings grows. No one is safe from being absorbed, and once in there is no getting out.
Free Guy will probably be of surface level of enjoyment to a lot of people (especially those who enjoy being swept up in the fanfare of Disney’s vast universe) and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s inoffensive, light and Ryan Reynolds’ undeniable charm and humour can save almost anything. But I had rather a strong negative reaction to this film both immediately after and in the days following that I can only equate to how I feel after scoffing a cheeseburger with Big Mac sauce added – rotund, regretful, and a little depressed.
I give Free Guy 5/10.