MOVIE REVIEW – Who would have thought that Free Guy, the best video game movie of all time, would be based on the adventures of an NPC? And Ryan Reynolds is in perfect form in this action-comedy.
Over the years, Hollywood has notoriously struggled with video game movies; adaptations of popular IP have failed to win over critics and non-gamer moviegoers, and these films have been box office flops – with a few exceptions.
Not about a real video game
Free Guy takes a different video game-movie approach: the script by Matt Lieberman (Scoob!, The Christmas Chronicles) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One) doesn’t adapt a real game. Still, it follows a non-player character – an NPC – in a fictional open-world shooter called Free City. Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) then brings the world of Free City to life as a surreal but no less human version of our reality.
Although this may sound novel at first glance, there have been similar films before David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Ready Player One, or the last two Jumanji starring Dwayne Johnson. Not targeting a specific game seems to be a win-win situation for gamers, non-gamers and filmmakers alike.
The NPC wakes up and helps where he can
Set in the world of Free City, Free Guy follows an NPC named Guy (Reynolds) who works in a bank with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). But everything changes for him when he spots the player character Millie (Jodie Comer) and breaks out of his pre-programmed treadmill, acquiring the sunglasses that distinguish the player from the NPC.
When Millie explains that Guy needs to level up, which players can achieve by doing bad things, Guy goes his own way and levels up by becoming a good guy. Outside of the game, Guy becomes a viral phenomenon. Millie realises that Guy might help in her lawsuit against Free City’s publisher Soonami and its owner Antwan (Taika Waititi). He believes Antwan has stolen the game Millie was developing with her best friend Keys (Joe Keery), who, instead of helping her, is content to work at Soonami with his current boyfriend Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar). As a result, Millie enlists Guy’s help to help prove her case and save Free City before Antwan can destroy the evidence.
No holds barred, creative storytelling allowed to soar.
Free Guy is not an adaptation of a particular video game but tells a new, original story that happens to be set in the world of video games. This means that the constraints of an established property unencumbered Lieberman and Penn’s script, and they could tell whatever story they wanted. Perhaps surprisingly, they chose to tell a story about love and free will that fits seamlessly into the video game world of Free Guy. While the Free City game and the way Levy presents the game mechanics border on the fantastical, the story at the heart of Free Guy keeps it grounded, as the characters engage in very human struggles about the meaning of life and love. The film strikes the perfect balance between light-hearted, fun action-comedy and the more serious, with real moments of growth and learning, making for a well-rounded and entertaining experience.
At the centre of this experience is Reynolds, who, with Guy, forms a character that is extremely charismatic and naïve, who at the same time looks at everything with endless optimism. It is as if the role was written for Reynolds: the actor shapes and fulfils the character on the screen with superb flair. In his previous roles (Deadpool, The Bodyguard, 6 Underground, to name but a few), Reynolds has proven his ability to balance action and humour – although it’s true to say that after many of these characters, it can feel like they’re just copies of each other. There’s a bit of that in Guy, but it works within the film, as Reynolds’ natural charm pairs well with the script and character.
Not just Reynolds shines.
It helps that An excellent cast surrounds Reynolds, with Comer as the determined Millie and Waititi as Antwan, the arrogant, arrogant yuppie corporate evil who is very much like Mark Zuckerberg and who wants to manipulate, control and overpower everything and everyone. Comer is a phenomenal actress, and she puts those skills to good use by giving Millie and the game character a lot of depth, while Waititi is a joy to watch on screen as the eccentric game mogul – the kind of villain that the audience loves to hate. They are joined by a supporting cast of Keery, Ambudkar and Howery, whose performances also fit the film and the story as a whole. Together, the entire cast brings real depth, heart and humour to Free Guy.
Ninja and the other streamers were a waste of effort to include
Free Guy falters a bit when it tries to show the wider world and Guy’s impact outside of Free City and Soonam, which the film does by showing popular “celebrity” game streamers and various unknown people commenting or watching. While these segments are meant to be authentic, these reactions feel forced and contrived and take the audience out of the film rather than further inserting them into the world of Free Guy. They’re necessary for the story to set the stage for the climactic third act, but the inclusion of fake streamers specifically for gamers is a terribly forced and fanservice.
In contrast, Free Guy also has several Hollywood stars in brief ‘cameo’ roles that range from the barely noticeable to the hilariously shocking (in the best sense), and they are much more entertaining.
On a strong positive note, while some elements of the video game culture in Free Guy are indeed a bit forced – especially for gamers – the film is still an overall authentic portrayal of the industry – even showing a slice of the darker, more negative aspects of it.
Gamers and non-gamers alike will have fun.
Ultimately, while Free Guy is the most creative, heartfelt and perhaps the best video game movie to date, the film is fresh and original enough for anyone to enjoy. Viewers don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of video games or the community to enjoy the story that Levy, Lieberman, Penn and Reynolds tell because it is universal and speaks to issues deep within humanity.
Therefore, Free Guy is worth a watch for anyone interested in the film’s basic premise, which the film cleverly exploits, or who is looking for a fun action-comedy for a bit of summer popcorn watching. With clever storytelling, a realistic portrayal of honest emotion, wildly entertaining humour and thrilling action, Free Guy has everything viewers have come to expect from a great summer blockbuster.