Free Guy and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Studios
Directed by Shawn Levy
When the Pandemic started over a year ago, this was one of the movies that got pushed back to try and court a big audience once things had settled down, and sadly it seems to have waited JUST long enough to catch the brunt of the Delta variant that has people gun-shy about going back to theaters once again. Still, even when the trailers for this were coming out in the pre-pandemic work, it was not something I was looking forward to as it looked like a cash grab from Ryan Reynolds; using his post-Deadpool clout to score a HUGE payday with something that KINDA resembles his usual shtick. Then again, Reynolds isn’t a guy who takes on roles lightly, especially SINCE Deadpool, and his other big cash grab movie Detective Pikachu turned out to be one of the best video game movies ever made! Can he make lightening strike twice with this send up of the AAA Game Industry, or is the video game curse one that even Ryan Reynolds can’t overcome more than once?
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is an NPC going about his day to day life in an online sandbox game known as Free City; basically if Grand Theft Auto 5’s online mode was smashed together with a not-so-self-aware version of the Saints Row series. Guy is no one of particular note in the game, he isn’t giving people quests or running in-app purchase storefront; instead he’s just a banker who’s daily routine involves getting stuck up by criminals multiple times a day as players complete the Bank Heist mission for XP. All of this is way over Guy’s head who along with his fellow NPCs doesn’t even know they are in a video game; they are just living their lives day to day and this is what it looks like! That is until Guy runs into a player named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) who seems familiar in some way and makes him start to think differently than before; so much so that he decides to take the glasses that these robbers are always wearing and discovers the user interface that’s hidden from all the NPCs. With this new world opening up to him, Guy goes after Molotov and even tries to make Free City a better place to live by stopping crime and being a Good Guy which gets him XP of his own and catches the attention of streamers out there; confused by this character (who they mistake as an actual player) trying to do GOOD things in the game. This attention however does not go unnoticed by the developers and the studio head Antwan (Taika Waititi) who is none too happy with someone trying to break their profitable game loop; especially right before the release of their sequel that will make Guy and his world obsolete. Will Guy’s quest for self-determination and heroism ultimately spell doom for himself and everything he holds dear? Who is this mysterious woman that he has fallen for, and what is her connection to the developers of the game itself? How can Ryan Reynolds be so dorky AND so cool at the same time!?
One of the biggest struggles a film critic has (or at least one that I often run into) is trying to differentiate between what a movie SHOULD have done versus how well it executes what you see on screen. Was there ambition to be something more that just didn’t come together, and should that ambition be held against it? Make no mistake, this movie wants to be more than just a silly action movie as the trailers are rather bearish on the non-blockbuster elements of this, but the marriage between what it HOPES to accomplish and what it’s ACTUALLY good at is an uneasy one rife with miscommunication and awkward passive aggression. It WANTS to be a Truman Show style examination of pop culture and about the Capitalistic excesses within… but then it’s also doing a lot of jokes about gamer bros and extended action sequences that don’t mesh well with the everything else it’s doing. I don’t think The Truman Show would have been livened up with a few ninja attacks (though I can imagine Christof adding them if the ratings started to sag), and for what its’ worth the action here is competent but not all that inspired. However, it does find a few good ideas that genuinely pull at the heart strings if you let it, and while I would have been more engaged by a movie that was all about the sincere characters and explorations of the human condition, it’s still no less satisfying to see the Chad NPC school all the Beta Cuck Gamer Bros throughout the movie!
Now on its own merits, regardless of what ambitions it has or movies that it reminded me of, it’s pretty solid. The action itself isn’t gonna give the Fast movies or the MCU a run for its money, but it gets the job done and is held up by the solid performance by Ryan Renolds. You don’t make a movie like this without a star to carry it, and while it’s far from his BEST work, you can’t deny that Reynolds brings a lot to the table whenever he shows up in something and he is one of the reasons this film elevates itself ever so slightly above the standard Blockbuster fare. It could have just been another Ready Player One where the spectacle and references overtake any semblance of a story but Reynolds finds the humanity in his character that manages to peak out underneath the goofy caricature he plays throughout the movie. Guy as a happy go lucky oblivious fool constantly surprised by the world around him can come off as obnoxious when he’s in the middle of something and still can’t grasp the gravity of his situation, but his longing and sadness become evident as the movie goes along and his ambition to change all that helps to make him endearing. And again, pawning Gamer Noobs is always fun to watch!
What makes this movie work in unexpected ways and elevates it above the simplistic blockbuster threatened to give us is that it does have a heart to it and sincerity. Maybe not enough for it to truly work as well as it hoped to, but the effort is admirable and I genuinely enjoyed it whenever it did focus on this instead of the random acts of video game violence that fill the gaps of this movie like very loud Spackle. The movie ends up embracing its sincerity so much that they even start to introduce magical (or at least magic adjacent) elements that kind threw me for a loop and kind of got to me! Something as simple as human connection is what ends up being the most important thing in the movie and they are not afraid to take it as far as they can to create something that, at least for a few moments, feels like a timeless fairy tale rather than just jumping on the video game bandwagon. It can get a LITTLE preachy at times and the movie’s messaging is a bit outdated. There are places in the industry for smaller more character based experiences, and the problems we face now have less to do with excessive violence as they excessive monitization; something that Ready Player One oddly enough managed to grasp, albeit in a very simplistic manner. Still, there are discussions to be had about video games indulging in base instincts and using these big open world sandbox games to subtly push messages onto its audiences, and most importantly the film is ultimately optimistic as change is welcome by all except the corporate interests. Sure, we all know in the real world that there are no shortage of corporate defenders who will go to bat for any lousy practice, but I like the place that this movie ends up going even if it’s not truly living up to its ambitions.
You could argue that it’s unfair to keep comparing the movie to The Truman show, but the film itself draws those comparisons; especially with the ending which is almost a note for note recreation of what happens at the end of that movie. Sure, with a lot of CG stuff cluttering the screen and some contrived McGuffins to move everything forward, but that’s kind of the problem; isn’t it? The Truman Show is a once in a generation masterpiece that at no point deviated from its core ideas and it’s central character, while here the story of Guy has to squeeze itself between action set pieces, jokes bout Gamer culture, and criticisms of market driven product development. It’s not like this can’t be done as The Truman Show effortlessly flipped between the crushing isolation of Truman and the world that peers into his fishbowl, but despite the movie having a lot of strengths scattered throughout, the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts. On top of that, there are some outright bad elements here and some shoddy editing that leaves the thing feeling not entirely finished. Taiki Waititi is almost unwatchable as the villain with his obnoxious tech bro attitude, but then every once in a while there’s a moment where he gets serious out of nowhere and you could see where this could have gone if they had gone with a less goofy interpretation of that character. Guy himself is also inconsistent as his comfort level with violence fluctuates throughout which makes it seem like this thing got rearranged in the edit; mostly likely putting the extended GOOD GUY sequence before the big heist instead of after, though that’s just a guess from my end. Most of these issues could have been smoothed over by focusing even more on the Game World and cutting out almost everything outside of it. This was another area that The Truman Show excelled at as the world outside of the show was even smaller than the world inside Seahaven; letting us glimpse the world in which people would consume a show like that but not letting anything there truly drive the narrative. The real world stuff here isn’t without merit and they even got my favorite actor from Stranger Things to have a pretty sizable role, but it’s easily the least memorable aspect of the movie and some added mystique there could have made the references to “God” in this movie an interesting idea to play with rather than a simple punchline.
So go go back to the initial question of this review; how much should a movie’s ambitions (as well as its obvious influences) weigh against it when viewing? For me, I’d say it’s worth weighing and DEFINITELY worth discussing, but in the final tally it’s not gonna be the most important thing to look at. Yes, it reminded me of The Truman Show all the way through and I even went and watched that movie after seeing this one, but honestly the inconsistent editing, the performance by Waititi, and the far less interesting real world segments bring this down much more than whatever comparison can be made between it and a much better movie. The film absolutely gets a thumbs up from me and I think it is worth seeing, but the flaws are still there and do keep this from being as good as it could have been. Then again, to want another movie JUST LIKE The Truman Show kind of misses the point of WHY it was so great, namely its originality, and while this could have been even MORE original, it at least feels SOMEWHAT original. Perhaps that’s not the kind of ringing endorsement they’d put on the poster, but it’s still more than I was hoping for!