20th Century Studios present Free Guy in cinemas from 13th August
Video-game movies are a challenging endeavour. Trying to capture the freedom of the player’s actions alongside the expansive landscape of a fantasy world. A mix that, when squashed into a cinematic lens and limited runtime, often ends badly. For example, Silent Hill, The Super Mario Brothers Movie and Assassin’s Creed, are all examples of how trying to fit a video-game world into a film-shaped hole can end horribly. After all, in making a film based on a game, you are trying to capture the story and a feeling of the gameplay. A feeling individually felt and never easily described. Equally, adaptations invariably set limits, a tricky puzzle when you’re tackling something that feels limitless. Fortunately, Shawn Levy’s Free Guy doesn’t try to emulate any specific world, and as a result, it frees itself from the curse of the video-game adaptation.
Bank-teller Guy (Ryan Reynolds) world is deliberately non-descript but takes clear inspiration from many games. In fact, his character feels closest to the online component of Grand Theft Auto. As Guy walks the streets, planes and automobiles detonate while bandits armed-to-the-teeth cruise through downtown in what seems to be a non-stop chaotic cacophony.
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This captures the spirit of playing in a multiplayer lobby, where more often than not, players aren’t just conducting missions or squading up; they are creating madness en masse. Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn’s script reflects genuine video-game speak, with talks of collision meshes and reflection errors amongst our game developers, Millie and Keys (Joe Keery and Jodie Comer). The result is a feeling of genuine gameplay, as opposed to the random technobabble so commonly used. However, there are still some hangovers of older video-game speak. After all, no one calls anyone a ‘noob’ or a ‘rookie’ anymore. But, to be fair, the script-writers couldn’t use even 10% of the insults floating around a modern multiplayer lobby.
What’s most surprising about Free Guy is its unexpectedly misleading marketing, mainly due to the COVID pandemic. Over the last few months, we have been treated to a slew of trailers and promos, making many feel they had already seen all that Shawn Levy had to offer. However, much like the film’s central mystery, the actual narrative arc was hidden all the time. The focus on Millie’s lawsuit against Soonami Studios, headed by its villainous capitalistic CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi), feels genuinely on the pulse, a response to the current movie and gaming industry problems. Here, Antwan’s buy-and-shelve strategies feel ironic, especially given Disney’s own recent history.
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Free Guy’s notably anti-corporate themes, championing the individual indie-developer over the giant conglomerate, also rings true of scandals like CDProjekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 and Disney’s lawsuit with ScarJo. But, here, the anti-corporate sentiment also blends with a delicate philosophical edge that comes from Guy’s introspective epiphany of his existence. Understanding himself to be a simulacrum, yet paradoxically feeling just as alive as Millie or Keys.
While Some have hailed Free Guy as a modern Truman Show, it often feels more like a blend of Stranger Than Fiction-meets-Frankenstein. Here, the entity is forced to come to terms with its conscious existence alongside its creator, realising their every move and decision is partly decided for them by this higher power. The result could have seen Free Guy become frightfully melancholic if it had taken a different direction, Guy spiralling into a manic depression or hyper-insanity from the pointlessness of his existence.
However, it is also easy to see why this Reynolds outing has found a comparison to Jim Carrey. After all, while Reynolds may not be as comically versatile as Carey, he does carry an ironically upbeat, slightly deranged All-American Guy image, not unlike Jim Carrey’s physically malleable, hyper-energetic powerhouse. And while Carrey’s public image has dramatically shifted over the years, it feels as though Reynolds has filled the Carrey-like mould. Of course, just as with Carey, some may grow tired of the Reynolds schtick. But it’s undeniable that Reynolds brings a passionate energy to his work.
As a result, Ryan is Ryan in Free Guy. His character, exactly how you would expect him to be. And this oddly works in reflecting his stilted NPC demeanour. However, unsurprisingly, it’s Jodie Comer who provides the stand-out performance. She undoubtedly carries the film as she battles against giant conglomerates and her emotional connection to Guy and Keys. Comer emits Millie’s desperation in pursuing the truth with a rich honesty that invites you to root for her, enveloping you in generous emotional warmth. Comer truly is an outstanding actor, and Free Guy benefits greatly from her presence. Her chemistry with Keery, on point throughout.
With an original video-game world that cleverly takes loose inspiration from several creations, Free Guy avoids the pitfalls of many of its predecessors, focusing on the real world above the virtual. And by pushing its human story to the forefront while weaving the reality with gaming, it emphasises its anti-corporate themes. The result, an uplifting tale of the underdog; a fun surprise worth watching if you’re free, like Guy.