Available in cinemas
I’m not quite of the generation raised on video games – movies were still the dominant medium for me growing up, with TV there in the background, too. But I imagine that the members of Generation Alpha are going to be more video game-literate than we Millennials are cine-literate, and be able to quote the best scenes from Grand Theft Auto as easily as I can quote Notorious or When Harry Met Sally.
As such, Free Guy is taking a big chance: it’s a take-down of modern video games that ends up concluding that “video games would be better if they were more like documentary movies, wouldn’t they?” I wonder how well that will go down with its target audience – or will it just go over their heads? Or am I misjudging those viewers, all raised on Fortnite, who might even agree?
Free Guy takes as its basis the likes of The Truman Show (1998), The Lego Movie (2014) and Tron to give us ordinary guy Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank worker who lives in Free City, a town divided between those with really, really exciting lives (the sunglasses wearers) who are always zooming around at high speed, shooting things, ignoring the law and generally having fun; and the regular people, who all seem to do the same things day after day after day, often getting killed in the process, only to be reborn again the next day. Little does he know, he’s only a character in a video game and those people in sunglasses are the players.
But one day, he spots sunglasses-wearer Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) and realises she’s The One. Inspired, he changes his narrative and follows her. Then, when he acquires a pair of sunglasses himself, he learns the true nature of the world and decides to advance up the levels of the game to win her over.
Free Guy’s free fire at games
I’ll admit that all I know about video games comes from playing Gardenscapes and Marvel Strike Force on my phone and general cultural osmosis. But Free Guy felt, to me at least, every bit as incisive as Tron (1982) was about early arcade games, Boss Level (2021) about 90s games and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) was about games of the 00s.
Its first couple of acts are very funny digs at modern video games (particularly GTA), their storylines, their jargon and the various methods games designers use to provide players with challenges. “Levelling up”, “skins”, “power up”, “med packs”, “god mode” and other bits of game slang make their way into the movie’s lexicon, with the firm expectation that the audience will know what they all mean – and are used accurately, as well.
It is very funny to watch Reynolds start as a games “newb”, as he works his way up through the levels, learning how to deal with adversaries, yet also treating it all deadly seriously. He’s not going to murder anyone, NPC or PC, because they’re people, damn it, and you just don’t go around murdering people.
That incisiveness actually gets more acute and funnier once Waititi arrives. I’m not exactly sure he’s acting – it feels more like he did a physical, motion capture performance for his own body and then dubbed his lines on afterwards – but in conjunction with a script that understands the nature of brainstorming and the difficulty of creativity, the movie’s final act does provide plenty of laughs from a character who understands money better than he understands dialogue and good design.
All in all, it impressed me with its accuracy and didn’t feel, as perhaps Free Boss did, that it was homaging games the writers knew from their childhoods. This felt like modern games getting told they might want to try to developing their characters, revising their sexist attitudes and generally avoiding the “same old, same old” and “sequelitis”.
It’s fast, funny and furious, as well as smart – and spot-on.
Ironically, given the movie’s message, what it didn’t really get was people – gamers, that is, IMHO. For the most part, the players depicted are clichés: teenage boys and young men who masturbate into the socks. I’m sure there’s a percentage, perhaps even a large one, of games players like that, but it’s not representative of the gamers I know.
Equally, I’m as prone to getting a little excited about Ryan Reynolds as anyone, so maybe another aspect of it is more accurate than I’d like to admit. But the only female gamers shown in the movie don’t really do much or have much to say, beyond getting excited about the romance between Comer and Reynolds and how much they fancy ‘Guy’. Nerdy women and our interests might have become mainstream in other areas of the media, but it seems like movies’ haven’t really taken in the changed nature of female fandom since Galaxy Quest (1999) first acknowledged our existence.
There’s also the movie’s conclusion: (spoiler alert) games should avoid being violent and maybe consider showing us a bunch of characters ambling around without interaction. That doesn’t feel to me like a game many people would play, but maybe I’m wrong, given the success of “The Sims” – although that still has some interactivity.
It’s less of a valid conclusion, more the result of a narrative dead end the writers created for themselves. That said, Free Guy 2 is being planned, so maybe there’s more to be said on that subject.
Free Guy’s biggest failure
The movie’s biggest failing is also its biggest irony: Jodie Comer is little more than a NPC in Free Guy. For all the movie’s pleading with its audience to consider the thoughts and feelings of others who might get overlooked, that really doesn’t extend to women, since as with the female gamers in the movie, Free Guy‘s main female character has very little to do.
Comer’s ‘MolotovGirl’ is the Flynn of what is really Tron from Crom‘s point of view, being a user hunting for proof her programming IP has been stolen. She should therefore be a goddess among the movie’s mortals.
She’s also Jodie Comer and Villanelle. She’s a goddess. Full stop.
She has been playing the game as a user for at least four years, is a higher level than he is and is a “Leet Hacker”. Yet somehow, she’s always relying on Reynolds for everything. She needs him to get the evidence she’s after. She needs him for inspiration. She even needs him to drive for her.
She is little more than a manic dream pixie girl, there to provide Guy with information about his world and the motivation to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”.
It’s true she does get some kind of resolution to her character arc, eventually (spoiler alert) realising she’s in love with her co-developer Joe Keery. But she still needs Guy to point that out and it doesn’t feel like anyone sat down and asked why she would be interested. Arguably, in fact, it’s more like (spoiler alert) she’s the end of Keery’s character arc, a reward for his endeavours.
It’s a typically great performance from Comer, so it’s a real shame she doesn’t get the script to match her talents here.
Nevertheless, Free Guy is a lot smarter and harder hitting than most Ryan Reynolds action movies, as well as funnier than most of his comedies. It contains most of his trademark meta-references, right down to cameo appearances from Aviation Gin, Hugh Jackman, Dwayne Johnson and (spoiler alert) Chris Evans and the MCU. Reynolds fans won’t be disappointed by what is probably one of his best movies, IMO.
It’s disappointing that its smartness didn’t extend to considering that women could be three-dimensional, too, but ultimately, it didn’t tarnish the movie so much that I didn’t enjoy it.