It’s become something of a well-established fact that, more often than not, video game movies tend to be disappointments. Over the years, a string of big-budget adaptations based on some of the world’s biggest games have frequently underwhelmed critics and audiences alike – with everything from Mortal Kombat to Assassin’s Creed failing to garner particularly positive reviews.
In fact, it’s become increasingly apparent that the video game movies that work best are those that aren’t actually based on real games at all. In other words, films that immerse themselves in gaming culture and aesthetics but aren’t tied to any existing IP – and as such can’t suffer from direct comparisons.
It’s in this category that Free Guy, the new Ryan Reynolds film, falls. Set inside Free City, an open-world video game something akin to Grand Theft Auto, the film sees Reynolds star as Guy, a non-playable character (NPC) who becomes self-aware after spotting the woman of his dreams. The film plays out like a mixture of Wreck-it Ralph, The Truman Show and They Live – and while it’s perhaps inferior to each of those films, there’s enough to like about it to make it an enjoyable watch.
The film opens with narration from Reynolds, who begins by informing the audience all about “the sunglasses people” – who we soon understand to be the player-controlled inhabitants of Free City. He also talks us through his daily routine, which mainly involves ordering the same coffee every day and serving customers at the bank where he’s employed (“don’t have a good day, have a great day,” is his oft-repeated catchphrase.) But this all changes when a chance encounter prompts him to try on a pair of sunglasses for himself – and when he does so his life changes forever, awakening something within him and quickly making him an extremely popular figure amongst the gaming community, even if Free City’s creators are stumped by what is going on.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we are introduced to Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) a pair of game designers who have their own reasons for being interested in Free City – they believe the game’s egotistical creator Antwan (Taika Waititi) has based his game on the code they had created for their own critically successful indie game, Life Itself. While Keys is now working as a loyal underling of Antwan, Millie is determined to prove the theft and get justice whatever the cost – and as the film progresses it becomes as much about their story as about Guy’s.
From the off there are some good visual gags that will play particularly well with gamers – for example, the cool indifference with which Guy and his fellow NPCs treat the extremely regular heists at the bank, not to mention the sight of some “sunglasses people” constantly walking up against walls and barriers. Free City certainly seems like it could be a viable game, and it’s clear that the research director Sean Levy has done into the gaming community has not been wasted. (Here is all we know about the major Free Guy Easter eggs so far.)
The film is billed as an action-comedy, and it certainly provides some laughs, several of them delivered off the cuff by the always enjoyable Taika Waititi. Meanwhile, Reynolds, who can do this kind of shtick in his sleep, is reliably entertaining in the lead – and is especially funny in the final act, when he appears as a more buffed-up character Dude, complete with a very memorable catchphrase. Lil Rey Howery is also a likable presence as Guy’s friend Buddy – and could arguably have been given more to do – while Joe Keery is impressive as Keys. But there’s no doubt that the standout performer is Jodie Comer, who delivers a great dual performance as both the nerdy but righteously vengeful Millie and her more bad-ass in-game persona Molotov Girl. It was evident from her performance in Killing Eve alone that Comer is a brilliant and versatile actor, and she proves her worth as a bonafide movie star with this turn.
It’s worth pointing out that the film is something that has become increasingly rare these days – a summer studio blockbuster that isn’t part of an existing franchise – and at one point it makes some good jokes at the expense of the seemingly endless appetite for sequels and reboots. Unfortunately, though, it somewhat loses its right to make those jokes in the final act, some of the biggest moments of which rely on lazy IP references and a secret celebrity cameo. This aspect of the film will clearly work a treat for some, and I won’t spoil the nature of the surprise here, but these kinds of references consistently leave me unmoved and a little exasperated.
First reactions have already seen several critics label Free Guy “the best video game movie ever made” – and while I think that speaking in quite so glowing terms is a little hyperbolic, this is still a broadly enjoyable and mostly entertaining film, even if it can’t quite live up to some of its clear influences.