Video games have been incorporated into movies in a variety of ways, from straight-up adaptations to people playing the games to using video game aesthetics to tell a larger story. The new film Free Guy falls somewhere in between the latter two, taking place both in and outside of a popular open-world video game.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is an NPC — non-player character — in that game, Free City, a violent free-for-all that seems to be a mix of Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite. His character is a bank teller whose job, like all of the other NPCs, is to give up or be killed when confronted by the actual players.
One day, though, he encounters Millie (Jodie Comer), aka Molotov Girl, who awakens a part of him he didn’t know existed. Soon, he’s doing things that no NPC should ever do and trying to help Millie however he can. And Millie has a lofty goal of trying to take down Antoine (Taika Waititi), the developer of Free City, whom she believes stole the code she and her partner Keys (Joe Keery) built for another game and used as the basis for his game at Soonami, his video game company.
Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, the film is fun in spurts. Juxtaposing the mayhem that the players of Free City create with the apparently humdrum lives of the NPCs is worth more than few chuckles, especially when Guy interacts with Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard at his bank. And once Guy finds out he can break out of his routine, his discovery of different powers he can attain is cool to experience.
But overall it just doesn’t feel like the filmmakers made the movie as enjoyable as it could be. The intent of the real-world story doesn’t match up with its execution, and the scenes set there drag the movie down, especially when they involve the weird antics of Antoine. It also would have been nice to have been given a better understanding of the gameplay of Free City; as it stands, it’s almost impossible to determine what the goal of the actual game is.
Also, because the main character literally does not exist, it’s difficult to work up any genuine emotion about his fate. As the movie shows on multiple occasions, there are no real stakes in a video game, as players — and thus NPCs — can just reboot and start over again. The filmmakers try to give the story a Truman Show feel by having fans root for Guy’s success, but the attempt feels hollow.
Whatever achievements the film does have are mostly due to the performance of Reynolds, who knows exactly how to play a character like this. Comer, best known to this point for her role on the TV show Killing Eve, does well playing someone who’s equally intelligent and charming. Keery and Utkarsh Ambudkar, who play co-workers at Soonami, have some good rapport, but Waititi goes to a place that’s much more annoying than entertaining.
Free Guy falls more in line with the grand tradition of poor video game adaptations than as a great commentary on video games themselves. It’s clear to see where the filmmakers wanted to go with the movie, but they ended up somewhere entirely different.
Free Guy opens in theaters on August 13.