Director – Shawn Levy – 2021 – US – Cert. 12a – 115m
A non-player character in a mayhem-riddled video game decides to take matters into his own hands after meeting the girl of his dreams – out in cinemas on Friday, August 13th
Guy (sic) (Ryan Reynolds) works in Free City. In a bank. Every day he selects the same shirt from his wardrobe, gets a coffee from the same barista, goes to work. Where, at specific times like clockwork, there are robberies. He and his buddy, a security guard named Buddy (sic) (Lil Rel Howery) drop to the floor where they then chat about life, love and other issues.
Then, one day, he meets Molotov (Jodie Comer), a gun-carrying girl with a British accent. He feels as if he’s known her forever, like she’s the missing piece in his life. But she’s a Specs. She wears specs. People who wear specs do things people who don’t don’t. Guy decides he’s going to steal specs from the first bank robber who comes along.
What Guy doesn’t know is that he’s an NPC (non-player character) in a video game called Free City. The game is made by a company called Soonami run by Antwan (Taika Waititi). Antwan stole some code from game designers Walter (Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer) and built his own game around it.
Molotov is Millie’s avatar in the game. Her intention there is to locate and retrieve proof of the original stolen game as evidence for her impending lawsuit against Soonami and Antwan. Walter, meanwhile, is working for Antwan / Soonami’s complaints department believing Antwan’s myth that when the latter bought their game, he shelved it and that there is none of that game’s code in Free City. Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) is Walter’s best mate at Soonami.
The script provides the perfect vehicle for Ryan Reynolds playing a good protagonist in a world where most protagonists rob banks, kill innocent passers-by or otherwise cause mayhem. After acquiring specs and being challenged by Molotov to raise his level from one to 100, he starts protecting other NPCs from robbery, violence, mayhem or even losing their cats (!) becoming an online sensation among gamers – Blue Shirt Guy – in the real world.
Once Soonami and Antwan work out that he’s not a player in the real world but an A.I., they will attempt to stop him impacting the game and Molotov / Millie’s getting proof of Antwan’s game theft.
Reynolds turns up the charm (several real world, female characters refer to him as “cute”) to play Guy as the ultimate friendly and helpful citizen, the perfect boy next door. Although essentially a character trapped in a loop, the film refrains from going completely Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) after the first reel. It feels a lot like a bright and breezy version of The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999), throwing out the dark palette and a good deal of the philosophical resonance. With its protagonist trapped in a fake world created within the real world, it also owes a lot to The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998).
Yet it’s closer in feel to Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018) – and while director Levy handles vast quantities of digital effects work within the narrative, he’s no Spielberg (but then, Spielberg aside, who is?) Again, the film carries less weight and there are moments where the effects impress visually but make scant logical sense, for instance when Antwan takes an axe to the Soonami company servers and the pier along which Guy runs to save the world disintegrates… not in a random manner as you might expect but, conveniently, behind yet not in front of him.
Joe Keery and Jodie Comer provide solid support as the two cheated games designers, with Comer’s Millie / Molotov providing a romantic element to make this an effective date movie, even if Brits will be disappointed when she turns off her British accent part-way through. Special mention should go to comic genius Waititi for fleshing out the risible, talentless, money-obsessed Antwan.
Perhaps the whole thing could have had the courage of its convictions and played out its themes a lot darker within the sun-drenched, constantly pleasant-in-appearance Free City. And it falls back on gun-toting mayhem rather too easily. On the plus side, the pace never lets up, the whole thing is a lot of fun, and it makes for an engrossing evening’s viewing.
Free Guy is nominated for Best Visual Effects in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars.
Free Guy is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 13th.