There’s a reason why people connect to that scene in Avengers Assemble where the recently defrosted Steve Rogers looks up gleefully to say that he understood a Wizard of Oz reference. It seems to many of us that we aren’t in on the joke unless we scrutinise every single scran of pop culture thundering past us.
When a movie is designed to pander to a specific shared reference language it clearly comes with a baked-in audience. Think Spielberg’s Ready Player One, think anything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and now, for video gamers, think Free Guy.
Guy works as a bank teller in Free City. Sure, his bank gets robbed every day by extravagantly dressed and fabulously armed thieves, but he doesn’t let that get him down. Guy (Ryan Reynolds, The Adam Project) faces every day with a smile, and if he happens to get shot or exploded well that’s just fine; he wakes up in bed every morning regardless.
That’s because Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in an online open world game, stuck in the same programmed routine loop. Yet a combination of seeing the mysterious Molotov Girl and having some reality breaking player goggles drop into his lap sparks him off to deviate from his programming.
Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast to deliver the charm here, as we need a central character that isn’t overly obnoxious or weakly weedy. Watching Reynolds’ glossed over grin slowly drop as he becomes aware of his ‘reality’ is essential for taking us on an equal journey, led by the confident and compelling presence of Jodie Comer (Doctor Foster, The White Princess, Help) as Millie “Molotov Girl” Rusk.
Rusk is convinced that Free City ripped off the source code for a separate game that she designed along with ex-boyfriend Walter “Keys” McKey (Joe Keery, Stranger Things). She teams up with Guy to find concrete evidence, but in doing so unwittingly explodes his self-awareness.
Movies based on video games have a reputation for being mostly terrible. Whilst that trend has been bucked of late with some pretty decent efforts (Prince of Persia, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat) the problem is frequently one of design: the two are different story telling mediums. Re-doing the plot of a video game where you have control over the narrative is hard in the passive movie-going experience. Free Guy takes the same, and much better, approach as Wreck It Ralph by playing up to general and recognisable tropes for the laughs, nods, and winks.
It’s much easier to reference a whole genre than something specific and Free Guy has great fun with chucking in tons of elements that any player of open-world sandbox or PUBG style deathmatch games will recognise. Director Shawn Levy makes sure the screen is packed with little jokes to amuse the watchful, as well as tons of flourishes to bring Free City to life visually. But it also has a selection of endearing characters who, in a kind of reverse Truman Show, all begin to shake out of their routines thanks to Guy’s influence.
Strip away all the art assets and what you get with Free Guy is a fairly standard heart-warmer, with romance, action, throngs of self-doubt in a classic hero’s journey, and us all cuddled up for a big ‘ahhh’ at the end. The plentiful video game material is certainly hardwired into the movie, but Levy never delivers this as high concept, more a toybox of decorations encircling highly familiar story beats.
One glitch in the graphics is a rather irksome stint by Taika Waititi (Jo Jo Rabbit) as self aggrandising auteur Antwan Hovachelik, the boss of Soonami Games and thief of Rusk and McKey’s source code. With the release of Free City 2 looming, and with it the erasure of all the current game’s inhabitants, he’s the sour gag-laden and arrogant backside of a character. Waititi does his usual wide-eyed manic performance but the dialogue is dull and turgid.
This is the sort of overblown ‘annoying’ character that would otherwise get played by Ken Jeong in a different movie. He drives the plot by modding obstacles in our way, but his scenes sap the soul of an otherwise sweet and good natured movie.
Free Guy is something you boot up if you just want to bumble about whilst experienced designers guide you gently around the lovely level they’ve built, showing you the sights and plonking some salty and sweet snacks in your lap. The emotional beats are earned and affecting (if predictable) and Reynolds is clearly having fun, which is infectious. Put away your big book of references, and relax in the massive multiplayer online experience of camaraderie.
Words by Mike Record