Guy (Ryan Reynolds) lives a repetitive life in Free City, drinking the same coffee, wearing the same clothes and experiencing the same bank robbery every day, as he ignores a chaotic world of murder and mayhem. A chance encounter with “Molotov Girl” (Jodie Comer) leads Guy to a fateful revelation: he is an NPC in a MMO video game, and Molotov Girl is really Millie, a player seeking evidence that code she and friend Keys (Joe Keery) designed has been stolen by Free City’s unscrupulous owner Antoine (Taiki Waititi). Guy, seemingly the first example of true artificial intelligence, is the key to uncovering Antioine’s fraud, but only if he and his world are allowed the chance to keep existing.
There’s this unique Youtube channel I subscribe to/support on Patreon by a guy called Goldvision. Among other things, he has a series entitled “GTA Pacifist”, wherein he plays GTA Online with the goal of never engaging in any kind of violent, illegal or generally disruptive behaviour, doing so while discussing with his audience philosophical issues related to the same. It’s a fascinating idea, going against the grain of what places like the world of GTA Online are seemingly designed for, and speaks to way humanity will sometimes happily substitute its existing morality when presented with the chance to exist in a place without consequences.
Which brings us to Free Guy which, aside from being Ryan Reynolds’ latest effort at being the kind of pop culture behemoth in his 40s that he could never be in his 20’s and 30s’s, attempts to present the same kind of questions in movie form. This is what really makes Free Guy, which could easily have slipped into the realm of being a bland excuse for corporate synergy and product placement – and it does slip towards that abyss a few times, not least when the MCU and Star Wars get called out within 10 seconds of each other late-on – and instead is something I might describe as “Ready Player One, if Ready Player One wasn’t awful”.
I mean, Free Guy has charm for one thing, given in spades by Reynolds, and to a lesser extent by Comer and Keery. The lead has this type of role down pat: with that winning smile, comic timing and the puppy dog look whenever required. He’s a good guide through the often violent world of Free City, before Molotov Girl and Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” walk into his life and upend it all. The resulting adventure is good fun, even with the patently unnecessary inclusions of real-life Youtube personalities every few minutes, marked by a succession of good performances that prevent things from getting too lost in teabagging jokes: Waititi, playing the kind of douchebro game company CEO responsible for so much that is bad about the industry recently, is a special treat, giving his Anthoine a bit of an Adolph Hitler from Jojo Rabbit vibe. Through Waititi we also get some curiously ballsy shots at the kind of executives who hoard IP and are interested only in regurgitating sequels: this is a Disney+ release, so one imagines some strained “Better to be in on the joke” thinking going around the top table.
Humour is garnered from the difference between avatars and the people who control them, through corporate efforts to master popular trends (Waititi’s response to the titular hero is to create a roided up version named “Dude”) and from the idiosyncrasies of video games themselves (Guy’s best friend happily unclips his gun belt every time someone robs the bank they work at, a recurring motif). This kind of premise could easily have lent itself to the sort of brainless nostalgia/reference humour of something like the Ready Player One book and to only a slightly lesser extent the Ready Player One movie, but Free Guy has some people who care behind and in front of the camera. That’s the really important thing, even at its worst Free Guy just isn’t that objectionable.
It’s at its best when exploring, even comedically, the extent to which AI is possible in such surrounds, and perhaps at its worst when it tries to introduce a unneeded romantic plotline for what are, essentially, two supporting characters late on. But it looks fine, has some decent moments of satire when it comes to the video game industry, will garner some chuckles and doesn’t outstay its welcome (in fact it’s paced really well, a sign of a good director in Shawn Levy and good writers in Matt Lieberman and Zack Penn). It won’t be making any Films Of The Year lists, but this is a more intelligent effort than I gave it credit for before viewing. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Studios).