FREE GUY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Jodie Comer (Killing Eve), Lil Rel Howrey (Get Out), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect), Joe Keery (Stranger Things), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)

Director: Shawn Levy (Real Steel)

Writers: Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 13th August (US, UK)

It’s often a cliché to sum up a film as “_______ meets _______”, but whether pitching to a room of executives, trying to convince your friends to go see it, or just a lazy critic looking for a catchy pull-quote (self-deprecating wink), it’s an easy catch-all to sell a movie’s premise and overall tone. Sometimes, a film is far more than just a mash-up of two things, and Free Guy is a prime example of a movie concept smorgasbord. It’s Ready Player One mixed with The Matrix mixed with They Live mixed with The Truman Show mixed with Wreck-It Ralph mixed with…you get the idea. An idea-packed movie like that can end up two ways: a sloppy mess of popular ideas shoved together with reckless abandon, or a rich stew where the flavours of every ingredient compliment each other to create something new. Thankfully, Free Guy falls into the latter category, and may end up being the biggest surprise of the summer.

Free Guy (2021) - IMDb

Watching the trailers and certain scenes out of context, it’s easy to assume Free Guy is a fun but mindless blockbuster mostly selling itself on video game references and Ryan Reynolds’ charisma. However, much in the same vein as Reynolds’ Deadpool films, what they haven’t shown is its startling emotional depth and timely satirical edge. It takes the well-worn idea of someone realising they’re living in a false reality and uses it to explore existential questions about artificial intelligence, free will and what it means to be alive, but in such a breezy and uplifting manner that it avoids being overpowering. Unlike the broadly uncritical stance of Ready Player One, Free Guy isn’t afraid to lambast the more toxic sides of the video game industry. It frames its crime sandbox setting not as some fun-loving utopia, but a wretched hive full of players with sociopathic tendencies and casual bigotry, with Guy (Reynolds) as the optimistic antidote encouraging people to be better both in the game and real life. If that wasn’t enough, the film is an exaggerated but long-overdue critique of triple-A game development, depicting the toxic work environment, how employees are taken advantage of, the lies and broken promises made before launch, and just general corporate greed that the industry has become known for. Seriously, there are scenes that might as well have been written by James Stephanie Sterling themself and, given the recent scandals at places like Ubisoft and Activision, it’s especially cathartic to watch a stand-in for such companies get its just desserts.

That said, as much fun as the film is, the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. It’s hard to go into without spoiling, but there’s this big “all is lost” moment around the end of the second act that not only gets solved super quickly with little hassle, but literally contradicts itself in explaining how and why it worked. It’s a frustrating plot cul-de-sac that adds very little, only really serving to reinforce some exposition that could’ve been explained without stopping the movie dead for ten minutes. That’s also on top of the often-unclear rules of the game itself, which will likely confuse anyone who doesn’t have a decent understanding of online gaming. It’s refreshing that the film mostly avoids doing cheap reference humour, instead focusing its jokes on more universal video game observations like AI behaviour, glitches and streaming culture. Unfortunately, the third act suddenly shoves in about a dozen pop culture shout-outs in rapid succession; the first one is a big laugh because it takes you off guard, but then it keeps going and it starts to feel more like corporate synergy than genuine comedy. In the grand scheme of things though, these issues are easily overshadowed when Free Guy is such an infectiously joyful ride that manages to celebrate gaming culture whilst also justly criticising it.

Free Guy' clip sees Ryan Reynolds struggle with gamer lingo: Watch
Ryan Reynolds as Guy and Lil Rel Howrey as Buddy in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

After his career resurgence about five years ago, Ryan Reynolds has mostly been happy to recycle the sarcastic, self-aware persona that made Deadpool a hit. Whether it be 6 Underground, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hobbs & Shaw or even Detective Pikachu, his performances have remained consistently funny but also consistently samey. It’s a shame, because Reynolds is a more versatile actor than I think even he gives himself credit for; go watch criminally underseen gems like The Voices and Mississippi Grind for evidence of that. Thankfully, whilst he hasn’t abandoned that sense of humour, our protagonist Guy is at least a slightly different flavour of Reynolds. The character is bluntly compared in the film to a four-year-old, and that certainly sells in his wide-eyed naivety and chipper attitude, gradually turning him into a fish-out-of-water in his own reality. What sells the performance, and ultimately prevents the confused innocent routine from wearing thin, is how Guy develops across the story as his awareness of his predicament evolves. When the film eventually reaches that moment of existential crisis, Reynolds’ otherwise-hidden acting chops come out to play and Guy changes from a comedic foil into a character with actual humanity. It’s easily his best performance since his return to A-list status, and I hope he continues to refine and diversify his roles going forward.

Of course, a comedy is nothing without a great supporting cast, and Free Guy has a stellar crew to fill out its roster. Jodie Comer makes for a fantastic foil for Guy as both embittered indie game designer Millie and her in-game avatar Molotov Girl, bringing a grounded presence to the game world’s otherwise surreal characters and internal logic, and her evolving relationship with Guy strikes that fine balance between heartfelt and hilarious. Lil Rel Howrey continues to be a low-key secret weapon as Guy’s best friend and co-worker Buddy, leading the rest of the NPCs of Free City who all quickly become familiar faces with their own running gags and moments to shine. Joe Keery is mainly saddled with a lot of exposition as beleaguered tester and Comer’s former partner Keys but he makes the most of the role, whilst Utkarsh Ambudkar easily gets the shortest stick as Keery’s co-worker Mouser but gets in some killer lines. Of course, as you might expect, Taika Waititi ends up stealing the show as the douchebro head game designer Antwan, elevating a fairly stock villain into a chaotic whirlwind of slimy internet culture regurgitated as a person. Sure, the more realistic head of this kind of company would be a boring CEO in a grey suit who doesn’t even like video games, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as watching an egomaniacal Waititi dressed like Kanye West at a sci-fi convention, would it?

Free Guy review: as entertaining — and as empty — as a AAA game - The Verge
Jodie Comer as Millie and Joe Keery as Keys in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

Translating a video game into a live-action space is a tricky prospect, and Free Guy manages to be a more faithful translation made with a passion for the medium than prior Hollywood attempts like Stay Alive or Gamer. The world of Free City itself certainly captures the heightened and madness-filled world of the likes of Grand Theft Auto, makes clever use of gaming staples like hub areas, hidden out-of-bounds geometry, leftovers from prior builds, and God Mode hacking, and incorporates the world of streamers and fan communities into the story’s background in a positive way. The sets and costume design are spot on, with the player characters dressed in ridiculous custom outfits contrasting with the non-descript looks of Guy and his fellow NPCs, and the visual effects fittingly fluctuate in quality based on how unreal and game-like the situation is. Christophe Beck’s score is an appropriate mix of traditional blockbuster score and action game bombast, and there’s some wonderfully pleasing soundtrack choices for both emotional and comedic effect; you will definitely walk out with Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” stuck in your head.

However, there are some odd inconsistencies in how the game world is presented that muddy the waters. Just for one prominent example, the game uses sunglasses to distinguish real players from NPCs, with said glasses providing players with their head-ups display (HUD). This would lead one to assume Free City is a first-person game, and this is reinforced by cutting to Guy’s POV where we see expected HUD elements (health, weapon selection, mission markers, etc). However, we most often see the game depicted in the real world through gameplay shown from a cinematic, photo mode-like perspective rather than placing the camera inside or behind the player character; I guess Free City uses some kind of revolutionary second-person camera? Yes, it’s something of a nitpick, but this and other inconsistent details do threaten to break the authenticity of a film that otherwise is a loving and faithful translation of video game tropes.

20th Century Studios Archives -
Taika Waititi as Antwan in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

Free Guy may look like a glossy big-budget studio comedy, but under the hood it’s a mix of anti-capitalist catharsis and sincere humanist optimism. Rather than being just a movie about video games, it uses the medium as a backdrop to tell a story about identity, self-worth and defining life by more than wealth and fame. Despite its numerous celebrity cameos, endorsements by Twitch streamers and being distributed by a subsidiary of Disney, it is far more a takedown of the corporatisation and gluttony of video game culture than an unquestioning celebration of it, and it couldn’t be timelier in that respect. It has a similar vibrancy and wit to Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s work on 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie, and to find it was actually made by a journeyman like Shawn Levy makes its thesis-worthy depth especially surprising; this is easily his best directorial effort yet, by the way. Whether you’re into video games or not, Free Guy is a delightfully engaging slice of summer fun that’s smarter and more prescient than it has any right to be.


Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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