Whilst movies based on video games continue to mostly earn a reaction that’s far less enthused than their source material, the video game inspired flick is another story entirely. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the latest Jumanji films (Welcome to the Jungle and The Next Level), the vast amount of time-loop movies, Sucker Punch (y’all know you’re coming around on this one)…all clearly inspired projects where the narrative rests comfortably within an open-world ripe for “real world” interaction that earned a championed response from audiences and critics alike.
For Free Guy, the cues are adjacent to the Grand Theft Auto games, taking the modern gaming cliches and skewering them to create both a fantastical universe and a genuine comedic actioner in the process. At the centre of Free Guy is the titular Guy (Ryan Reynolds, all charm and doe-eyed enthusiasm), a random non-playable character (or NPC, for short) who, along with countless other background “extras”, goes about his day-to-day life with a naive indifference. His bank balance never changes so that pair of shoes he wants remains continually out of reach, his medium coffee order stays consistent every day, and that bank robbery in progress at his work each morning? Doesn’t give it a second thought. That is, of course, until he does.
Gaining sentience and realising that he does in fact have the right to choose how he lives his day, Guy goes against the coded grain and injects himself into his surroundings – Free City – as if he was a player himself. He learns how to fight, how to “re-up” his health, and, most importantly, how to feel; the playable character Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) earning his affection throughout. It’s a could-be messy and confusing narrative that screenwriters Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One) manage to keep alarmingly in check. There’s multiple stories and intertwining arcs between the virtual and real worlds that are weaved quite seamlessly, and even though there’s a certain foreseeable nature in the fact that Guy starts something of an uprising in his own world, which in turn wins him a hoard of fans offline, the continual surprises the film delights in serving keep it joyously afloat in the face of predictability.
As much as the virtual world allows director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night) to indulge in outer-worldly possibilities (let’s just say that some Disney canon earn glorious cameo points), the real world on hand is just as investing, with the ownership of Free City itself at the centre. Molotov Girl in reality is Millie (also played by Comer), who, along with former business partner Keys (Joe Keery), is hoping to uncover the fact that the game itself is built off a program that the two of them created. This subplot proves to be a thorn in the side of Keys’ boss (a scene-chewing Taika Waititi) whose villainous ways ultimately lead to the potential destruction of the game and, by effect, Guy’s own existence.
Given that this is a movie that relies so heavily on the gaming world, it’s a testament to Levy and co. that the film never alienates the general audience members. It celebrates the online fantasy world lifestyle whilst similarly poking fun at it (one particular sequence where a teen’s interaction with his mother plays out in Free City is quite stupendous), but it never talks down to the medium either. It’s a balancing act that they manage with more aplomb than expected.
Though clearly influenced by similarly-themed titles such as Wreck-It-Ralph and The Truman Show, Free Guy manages to maintain a singular personality about itself. Yes it has fun with nostalgia and specific IP properties, but it’s so joyously well intentioned and created that it gets away with it. In embracing the futurism of its content, Free Guy manages to incite an old-school mentality of the theatrical blockbuster that embraced originality and dared to stand on its own free from looming sequels.
Free Guy is now screening in Australian theatres*.
* NSW September 9th, 2021
*This review originally appeared on The AU Review. It has been re-published with the author’s permission.