Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
As has been noted by many (as well as frequently on this site), it’s becoming harder to recall the last time there was a big budget blockbuster not based on previously established intellectual property. Whether good or bad, nearly every major Hollywood release is a sequel, prequel, spin-off, or an adaptation of a book, show, game etc. Gone are the days where the star, a high concept premise, or just the film itself can get butts in seats. Today, it’s all about what costume the actors wear, or which recognisable cinematic universe they inhabit. While there’s no shortage of quality, the lack of new characters, new concepts and new creations is definitely being felt. Therefore, it’s startling when you realise that Free Guy (2021) is a modern, big budget, action comedy that isn’t based off anything.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a happy-go-lucky, optimistic bank teller lives in a place called ‘Free City’. His handy narration informs us that ‘Free City’ is filled with so-called ‘heroes’ (all wearing sunglasses) who wilfully go around the place, starting fights, blowing things up, stealing money and basically making a mess of things in whatever way they choose. Guy and the inhabitants of Free City just go about their day either unwilling to defend themselves, or just continue ignoring the endless chaos. One day, Guy deviates from his routine when he comes across a ‘sunglass person’ named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). His fascination with her leads (the audience) to discover that Free City is an online video game, the sunglass people are players and Guy is actually a NPC (non-player-character). As such, Guy quickly becomes a better ‘player’ than the human players, gaining points by doing right instead of wrong.
As is probably evident, Free Guy is a science-fiction film dealing in concepts of artificial intelligence, simulated reality and online gaming. Thus, you can probably already guess there are shades of The Truman Show (1998), The Matrix (1999) and more recently, Ready Player One (2018). While there are definitely notable tropes borrowed and remixed, director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn have concocted a fresh cocktail, delivering a relatively unique spin on these ideas. Sure, things like Ready Player One already covered online games as reality, but Free Guy outclasses its predecessors by not hanging its entire existence on pop culture references. There are plenty of references to find, but the narrative isinstead built from the audiences’ basic understanding of modern gaming culture. This makes Free Guy feel new because its script couldn’t have been written before now.
Despite this, Levy knows that audiences still expect a healthy amount of action, laughs and thrills. Given that Free Guy is a thoroughly modern action-comedy, there was a high probability the action could’ve been an incomprehensible mess of ugly CGI and headache inducing explosions. Happily, Levy and cinematographer George Richmond have created exciting action sequences that are fun, coherent and creative. Practical special effects are often given credibility over computer generated effects, but Free Guy delivers beautifully rendered environments and creatively staged set pieces. Most impressively, it manages to reach the expected levels of spectacle while still maintaining a natural and elegant pace. We aren’t just rushing from one set piece to the next, as there’s plenty of time to stop, smell the roses, and let the character development breathe.
With that in mind, it’s important to point out just how optimistic Free Guy is regarding its discussion around artificial intelligence. At this point, it’s widely expected that films about AI immediately have to take the form of a cautionary tale, but Free Guy thankfully doesn’t play into that trope. The discovery of artificially created sentient life is framed as a major scientific breakthrough, completely avoiding the cliched concept of robots taking over the world. The film doesn’t sidestep an analysis of self aware computer software, it just looks at it from an excitingly positive angle. It’s clear that Levy wants to open our eyes to technological possibilities, as opposed to scaring us away from them.
This ties directly into Ryan Reynolds’ performance as Guy, which also takes a slightly different approach to what you expect from the set up. The film openly addresses the fact that violent video games are an outlet for people to safely live out violent impulses, so it seems like a no-brainer for Guy to eventually discover and revel in that feeling. However, Guy never stoops to the impulses of the human players, using his skills to protect and serve rather than cause damage and harm. Reynolds’ likeable screen presence makes him perfect for this kind of role, and even goes the extra mile in making Guy compelling despite not having full awareness of who or what he is. Narrative agency is mostly given to Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl, who has an independent arc outside of how she transforms after meeting Guy.
There is one major element that isn’t as refined as the rest, which is how the film delivers its thesis about franchising. It’s almost comical to think that an original, big budget film like Free Guy uses its platform to comment on how studios prevent the creation of original content. For the most part, this narrative theme is well handled and makes its point clearly, so it’s a shame that some of the most memorable moments rest on references to pre-existing franchises. If you’re going to make the point that there’s a lack of originality in modern content, wouldn’t you want the best moments to actually be original? To be fair, the way it’s currently framed isn’t completely wrongheaded, as it makes sense for the film to address the existence of franchises audiences are aware of. It’s certainly an odd conundrum and there’s no easy way out of it, but that also makes this a forgivable nitpick.
Ultimately, Free Guy is a solid example of what you can get when filmmakers are allowed to run wild with their studio mandates. This isn’t high art, nor is it hugely experimental, yet there is definitely artistry to the presentation and a strong sense of humour in the writing. Free Guy is a fantastic and fun action comedy which deserves to be remembered. Hopefully, its success will prompt more original films at the big budget level, in addition to the inevitable Free Guy sequels. In all honesty that’s probably not likely to happen, but one can dream.
Best way to watch it: While eating bubble gum ice cream.