While the history of films about video games are uneven – for every Tron a Gamer, for every Wreck-it Ralph a Ready Player One, there is an untapped potential about the world of gaming especially in this age on multiplayer online worlds. Enter Free Guy the latest Ryan Reynolds vehicle that promises to be the best kind of what if. What if those NP (Non-player) characters we needlessly (but gleefully) gun down in GTA (Grand Theft Auto) were actual people?
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller in an open world Grant Theft Auto style action game called Free City. One day he breaks his programming by taking a pair of sunglasses and discovers the game world around him, along with a enigmatic dream girl, MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer). From this moment onwards he embarks on an adventure to save his video game world and perhaps, find true love.
It’s easy to see the influence of The Truman Show, from Guy’s desire to find this mythical woman he dreams of, to the unfeeling overseer. But director Shawn Levy opts for is less of Peter Weir’s cerebral examination of free-will and constructed reality and more of an out-and-out comedy that happens to also have a very sweet natured centre to it.
In the role of Guy, Reynolds is on top form, his usual quick talking loveable goofball schtick is used to great appeal here. Less knowing than Deadpool, Guy is an innocent, way in over his head and yet Reynolds sells the earnest “good guy’ thing well. His budding romance with Comer’s MolotovGirl also works well, her hardened persona matches Reynolds childlike outlook perfectly and the sections where the film becomes a romantic comedy work much better than one would expect.
It helps that the supporting cast are well pitched too. Lil Rel Howery continues his mission to steal every film he’s in as security guard Buddy, Guy’s best friend, he gets the measure of his role and when it calls for moments of a bit more serious he nails it too. It’s a broader, sillier role than say his scene stealing turn in Get Out, but Howery bags the biggest belly laughs in the film.
While the real world people – Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery and Taika Waititi are all played broadly, there’s an element of attention given to them too. Keery in particular plays his role of geeky programmer Keys very well, when the film pivots onto him for sections it doesn’t grind it to a halt the way you would expect, even if he lacks the natural charm of Reynolds.
There’s an edgier version of this film waiting on the sidelines, wishing for a braver director. While Levy throws some stylish flourishes – the world of the game appears real when we are seeing it through Guy’s perspective, Levy also doesn’t opt to make this a film that is a little more realistic about what playing this expansive games is like. There’s no scenes on a thirteen year old repeatedly using racial and homophobic slurs, nor is there graphic violence.
However, what Levy lacks in edge he makes up for in moments of background detail – yes, gags about living with parents are pretty liberal in the film – but for all of them there are some great insights into gaming cliches, the use of broad caricatures, endless sequels and a very witty gag about background glitches. Where the film works best is when it’s resting on the very capable shoulders of Reynolds, his cheery, overly positive disposition juxtaposed with a world of excessive violence is hilarious, and doesn’t falter for a minute. It feels like his most involved performance for some time.
While the film is not wanting for cameos, for needle drop gags and for slapstick, what really works is the film’s heart and generosity of spirit, and while it’s faux-philosophy about being kind NPC characters is both weird and unfunny, the rousing nature of the film’s good spirit often masks faults in it’s logic. Free Guy is a film about being kind, and about the simple pleasures of seeing capable actors handle a throwaway, and not entirely original film, with the ease that most big blockbusters fail at. It’s a film that reminds us when in doubt, let Reynolds do his thing.
Free Guy is out now in cinemas