An update on the Truman Show idea, Free Guy follows a Non Player Character in a game – the ones who get shot at or driven into in shoot-em-ups and driver games – who starts to get an inkling of what he is. Ryan Reynolds plays the guy called Guy – he’s got a buddy called Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery, en route to stardom) – in this immensely smart and fairly funny CG-heavy actioner full of great talent in front of and behind the camera.
Not as funny as Deadpool, though it’s not aiming for quickfire quippery, there’s a thoughtful and meditative aspect to Free Guy and its ruminations on artificial intelligence and consciousness that set it apart from other “guys in a game” movies like Ready Player One or Tron: Legacy.
In the world Guy inhabits there are two kinds of people – while Guy goes to work in a bank every day, there are other people, “sunglasses people”, who seem to do all the unusual stuff. If it’s skydiving, or driving tanks over parked cars, or crashing a flaming helicopter into the side of a building, it’s the sunglasses people who are doing it. That’s because the sunglasses people are avatars of actual gamers sitting out in their bedrooms in the real world, while NPCs like Guy’s only function is to help make more real the open world game that they’re playing in.
And then Guy has his epiphany, sparked by contact with a passing woman (Jodie Comer) who stirs something deep within him. Suddenly on a quest to be the sort of person the badass Molotovgirl might go for, Guy grabs a pair of sunglasses off one of the player avatars and commences his Pinocchio-like climb towards being a real human, largely done in a Groundhog Day-style flashby montage.
Out in the real world, meanwhile, Molotovgirl goes by the name of Millie and is also on a quest, to prove that the code for the game she co-wrote with spoddy but handsome Keys (Joe Keery) was stolen by tech uberlord Antwan (Taika Waititi) and is being used as the template/engine for Free City, the game Guy inhabits. In a pincer movement, the sweet and cute Millie investigates from without, ignoring the imploring eyes of Keys, while as Molotovgirl she continues her search from within, getting to know Guy and, Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds, falling for him.
And also, this being a Ryan Reynolds movie, the pop culture references keep on coming, and include cameos from the likes of Channing Tatum and Chris Evans, a Star Wars moment involving a lightsabre, homages to Mariah Carey, a clear reference to Mae West’s gag “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just glad to see me,” while the action is served up fast and furious by Shawn Levy, with Comer’s fight sequences particularly well co-ordinated.
It is a particularly clever movie that wears its intelligence lightly. Some of it is very familiar – Guy is a variation on the familiar Reynolds character, one threatening to break the fourth wall at any point, while Molotovgirl resembles Comer’s Villanelle character from the TV show Killing Eve. The gamers are nerdy and play at home in their bedrooms, and Waititi is also now a recognisable trope – the evil tech magnate – but he’s puts his own spin on it, as a middle aged man tryharding like hell in a youthful industry. A Bond villain slot could be his one day.
Could Artificial Intelligence achieve self-awareness? Is there more to life than code? Is there a ghost in the machine? Is Millie in fact God? And, coming slightly from left-field, shouldn’t all the NPCs get together and organise for better terms and conditions? There are big questions hidden inside what looks like a big Christmas present of a film, all winking lights and shiny surfaces. The CG work – most of the film must have been green-screened – is superb and will never date, because it’s meant to look like video-game reality (my son, who codes games, tells me they’re now “just called ‘games’, Dad”) rather than reality-reality. Which is handy, because it’s a film that’s worth watching and rewatching – for the stuff off to the side of the frame, and the cameos, both the obvious ones (Evans, Tatum) and the ones the cast list insists are there (Dwayne Johnson, Hugh Jackman, Tina Fey) but are less obvious.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021