Free Guy

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Free Guy
"It's entertaining, no doubt."

Free Guy is a movie that is, in part, about videogames, indeed, a single videogame, but it is not a 'videogame movie'. It is not an adaptation of a game, it creates one whose action it depicts. Undeniably full of homage - indeed, this will become important later - but this is not a Resident Evil or a Silent Hill or a Max Payne or a Super Mario Brothers or an Assassin's Creed or a Hitman (Agent 47 or otherwise). This is more akin to a Tron or a Wreck-It Ralph. It doesn't borrow from a game to have story, it uses the ideas of a game to create one.

Free City is a place with many of the same vices as the Grand Theft Auto series. It is a placeless city with a beach that goes nowhere, shades of Dark City but brighter. An action comedy inflected with romance I don't think it's unfair to say that a character comes along who is 'The One'. Not just in the sense of The Matrix, though it's a cute one.

For all that it's got references to other Disney properties, and their scores, and cameos from their stars, and so on, the filmic reference it really seems to duck is They Live. Sunglasses are important, and when one best friend tells another to put them on so that they can see the world as it really is, the alliterative Canadian that comes to mind is not Ryan Reynolds but 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper. There might be danger in drawing connections between invasive entities and monstrous corporations advocating only for consumption when there are cross-promotional posters and YouTube branding around real-world video-game streamers. There are doubtless hidden cameos, but those waiting through the credits to discover there is no scene after them will see most (if not all) of them spelled out.

Reynolds is, as almost always, affable, charming, toothily nice. He plays the eponymous Guy, though even with an intermittent-fasting Deadpool-suit mandated physique it is Aaron W Reed who kicks him up to Dude level. His best friend is Buddy, Lil Rel Howery at least as solid a pal as he was in Get Out, even if here he is polygons and not paranoia. Utkarsh Ambudkar (loads of TV, first seen in the lovely Rocket Science) and Joe 'Stranger Things' Keery are staffers in Soonami Corporation. They are 'Mouser' and 'Keys', which feels like they ought to have an D'artagnan called 'Joe Stick'. As it stands, as mods (with mods) they try to eliminate "blue shirt guy" thinking him a rogue player. It won't be the first time they're wrong.

There are players. Not just Jodie Comer (Millie/MolotovGirl) whose credentials as a threat were well established in Killing Eve before she married into the Palpatines. There's Channing Tatum in the opening sequence that explains Guy's world as he then sees it, a stack of actual streamers too. There are age inappropriate children who stop short enough in the language stakes to keep it at 12A, and among references to videogames I've played there's also quite a few to Fortnite and other (presumably licensable) properties.

Code matters, but we still have weird tropes of mainstream coverage. The Truman Show went some way to explain why they might have stuff on the screens on town squares but it's much harder to explain here. It's also a lot harder to understand why Soonami's board or investors are as willing to put up with what they put up with, unless of course we're following the comic book movie version of capitalism where you only need to worry about activist shareholders if they're Batman or hostile takeovers if they're from Ironmonger.

Shawn Levy can direct special effects (Stranger Things, Real Steel, all three Nights At The Museum) and mainstream comedies too. This is easily both. Matt Lieberman co-writes - he did Playing With Fire among adaptations like The (animated) Addams Family and Scoob!. Zak Penn's genre sensibilities were first seen in Last Action Hero which still holds up as more playful than most anything in the 28 years since. I don't recall a superhero landing or a hair flick (as discussed in Black Widow) but his time writing for various Marvel properties from the X to Elektra to The Avengers themselves has clearly given him connections to borrow elements here.

Not kryptonite though, no bike-locks in sight. Plenty of Alienware though, or at least some other brand of light up laptops amongst product placement that seems more focused on F5 than refreshing flavours. I did spot a stack of General Motors concept cars, some of which I'm sure were last seen on screen in Demolition Man. Elsewhere brand furniture is obfuscated, with some exceptions. One character has a pretty full collection of Ducati motorcycles, there are some Red Vines, and if I cared I could probably tell you who supplied the gamer headsets but I don't.

This isn't Ready Player One (though Penn worked on that too). For a start it doesn't leave you feeling like you want to take a crowbar to pry free the kitchen sink so you can drown your sorrows in it. It does at times use familiarity to breed humour, there was at least one moment where I was minded to say "I understand that reference," but it is also in places genuinely, originally, funny. Taika Waititi helps with that, as Soonami CEO. He's capricious, mercurial, vengeful, petty, and clearly willing to both get his hands dirty and also stint on fire suppression equipment. He's also the one who gets a line about people only wanting IPs and sequels which feels in this context like an attempt to have one's cake and merchandise it.

More importantly, Millie has agency, goals, though no named female character to have a conversation with. There's a reference to a feminist manifesto but it's discussed as something happening offscreen and given already complicated associations between the term 'NPC' and online fascism and incels and the like I'd have hoped for something a bit more rounded. There's objectification (of Guy) that relates to his pixels, but that dates our screenwriters as much as anything else. It's all polygons now, or probably non-uniform rational B-splines or the like. The B stands for Bezier, not buns.

There are some liberties taken with how games and computers actually work. I'll wave off the artificial intelligence implications - those are at least as well handled as in Her or Ex Machina or Terminator: Salvation. I have more trouble understanding what folk are typing other than to generate dramatic tension through quasi-mechanical keyboards and if there's one trait of movie security goons that infuriates me more than failing to stagger reloads it's not changing passwords.

It's entertaining, no doubt. UK audiences got an early preview as it was shown as a 'Secret Screening' by Cineworld, and reaction seemed generally positive. There's a small nod to UK IP in the art department at Soonami, a copy of the first Tau Codex, for 3rd edition Warhammer 40,000. Never mind that it's now 20 years old, or that antecedents of that Greater Good effectively include Inquisitor Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau. It was the first of that particular melange, and so too, in a way, is Free Guy.

I suppose the most effective synechdoche of Free Guy is the frequency with which it features Mariah Carey's song Fantasy. It's in the trailer. It's covered by Jodi Comer for the soundtrack. It's got, contemporary to its original release, a remix by the artist then known as Puff Daddy that features Old Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. It's in itself sampled from, if not a cover of, Tom Tom Club's Genius Of Love. From the album Daydream, it features the word daydreams five times (depending on mix). It's complicated enough, but captivating, a "sweet, sweet fantasy" (baby). It's summery and somewhat inconsequential, but well constructed and catchy. Perhaps not one to watch "time and time and time again", it does nonetheless look fine.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2021
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Free Guy packshot
A bank teller discovers that he's actually an NPC inside a brutal, open world video game.

Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, John Krasinski, Camille Kostek, Aaron W Reed, Channing Tatum

Year: 2021

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, Canada, Japan

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