Free Guy review: A light-hearted satire of video games let down by brand loyalty

Certainly, Shawn Levy’s film wants to champion individuality, but how much does it live by those rules?

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 13 August 2021 06:36
Free Guy - Trailer

Dir: Shawn Levy. Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi. 12A, 115 mins

Free Guy opens on the life of an average guy who, in this case, happens also to be named Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Each morning he gets up, waves to his goldfish, eats his cereal, grabs his morning coffee (a medium with cream and two sugars), and heads to his job at the bank. There he chats idly with his security guard buddy (Lil Rel Howery), even as they have to drop to the floor – hands up – during one of the day’s routine armed robberies. What Guy doesn’t realise, and what the audience are slowly clued into, is that he’s actually an NPC (or non-player character) in a videogame called Free City. And the NPCs, really, are nothing more than walking backdrops that fill space while the players get to live their wildest, most chaotically unhinged dreams.

Tanks, grenades, jet packs – they’re all at the player’s fingertips in Free City, a tonally precise combination of Grand Theft Auto Online and the multiplayer, online shooter Fortnite. But herein lies the problem with Free Guy. Fortnite is well known for its crossovers with other pop-culture franchises, having recently played host to a series of in-game concerts by pop star Ariana Grande. So when Guy does liberate himself from digital confinement, he suddenly has all the privileges of an active, human-controlled player – including an arsenal of weapons that not only reference popular games, such as the Portal series, but also the Star Wars and Marvel brands.

That somewhat spoils the mirage of Free Guy. While screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn have crafted a light-hearted rebuke to conformity, wrapped in a satire of the videogame industry, this vision is then rudely interrupted by several visual reminders of the fact its studio, 20th Century Fox, was absorbed into Disney’s vast conglomerate back in 2019. At this point, having any kind of reference to Star Wars or Marvel feels less like a clever nod and far more like a show of corporate might. But director Shawn Levy, best known for the Night at the Museum films, does at least lean into the light philosophy and earnest outlook of The Truman Show, which similarly used the framework of reality TV in order to explore ideas of identity.

Guy escapes the prison of his existence thanks not to a man in tiny sunglasses offering him red and blue pills, but to love – specifically for Molotov Girl, the in-game avatar of developer Millie (Jodie Comer). Comer, in her first major Hollywood role following the success of Killing Eve, approaches both the stunts and the dialogue with unvarnished ease. She’s so natural in the role that it saves Millie from existing only as the object of a man’s affections almost singlehanded. And while Reynolds may not actively reject the sarcasm associated with his role as Deadpool, there’s something far more manic and sweetly naive about Guy. In fact, he has more in common with the actor’s career-best (and underseen) turn as an unwitting serial killer in 2015’s The Voices, down to the mile-wide smile that’s an inch away from turning psychotic.

‘Free City’ is a tonally precise combination of ‘Grand Theft Auto Online’ and the multiplayer, online shooter ‘Fortnite’

Certainly, Levy’s film wants to champion Guy and Millie as bastions of individuality, pitched against a tech CEO villain ( Antwan, played by Taika Waititi, ferociously tackling a largely jokeless role) who swears that “IPs and sequels, that’s what people want!” But what kind of moral stand can Free Guy really take when it’s guilty of the same lack of individuality its heroes set out to fight?

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