Free Guy’s action begins in earnest as the titular everyman (Ryan Reynolds) starts his day in Free City, a video-game paradise of brazen criminality. But Guy isn’t one of ‘the sunglasses people’, who can destroy, steal and free-ride around the town whenever they please. No, he’s an NPC (Non Player Character), so is cursed – or in his eyes blessed – to repeat his days over and over again. He wears the same clothes, drinks the same coffee, and works in the same Bank every day. This circular existence is turned upside down, however, with the arrival of gamer MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer); an event which causes Guy to question his entire existence.
The set up for the film is neatly done, and the real-world story is actually quite smart. Away from Free City, programmers and former best friends Millie (Comer’s real-life character) and Keys (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery) designed a video-game world which was designed to grow organically and iteratively. Indeed, it was a potential incubator for Artificial Intelligence before it was acquired by the corporate developer ‘Soonami’. While Keys stayed to work for the corporation, Millie went her own way, desperate to prove that something more nefarious was at play.
The reason this storyline – in which Keys and Millie begin to rekindle their friendship – works is largely due to both Comer and Keery themselves, who are excellent in roles which could in other hands have felt thin. Comer is able to jump between the composed, Villanelle-esque MolotovGirl and her more doubtful real-world personna with ease, and throughout she possesses a natural, assured screen presence. Keery, too, brings a deft balance to his character by never over-playing his scenes.Though there are some cartoon-ish performances around them (ahem, Taika Waititi), the pair are refreshingly authentic.
Though an original idea, in a sense, Free Guy is hugely derivative. Yes, Free City is a knowing homage to worlds like Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, but cinematically, it leans heavily into other works. Whether it’s the Groundhog Day meets The Truman Show set up or a finale which is beat for beat reminiscent of the similarly derivative Ready Player One, it doesn’t try to break new ground. Indeed, it doesn’t feel a million tonal miles away from one of Reynold’s previous action adventures, the perfectly enjoyable Detective Pikachu.
What’s more, beneath the confection of CGI explosions and all-out action, Free Guy has quite a muddled worldview. It pitches Antoine (an extremely zealous and off-putting Taika Waititi) as the film’s main villain due to his merciless pursuit of money. He’s the fairly well-worn stereotype of a corporate shill who doesn’t care about the people, and will churn out sequel upon sequel to solidify his intellectual property (IP), instead of making something entirely new.
Quite a bold statement for the Disney corporation to make, and what’s more surprising is that the film tries to have it both ways. When Guy faces off against ‘Dude’, he is able to call upon Disney’s full back-catalogue of pre-loved IP to provoke some laughs, and the roll-call of admittedly impressive and fun cameos means parts of the film are no more than an exercise in creative piggybacking. Though Millie, Keys and even Guy are fighting for originality and creative freedom, the film itself is strangely hemmed in.
However, when taken on face value, Free Guy is undeniably a solid, at times quite inventive summer blockbuster which uses its cast well. Reynolds is the perfect choice for Guy – the naive but well-meaning background character who slowly finds his purpose – and the script does deliver on a few well crafted laughs.
But in its giddiness, Free Guy tries to cover far too much ground. It gamely attempts to be a film which is about taking control of your own life and fighting for creative freedom, before taking a tentative sojourn into equal rights for NPCs (whether that’s metaphorical or literal, the film is unsure), and, in true School of Rock fashion, sticking it to the man. Throw in actually quite a sweet love-story, and that’s a tall order for any blockbuster, even if the film makes an entertaining go at all of them.