As one of this year’s big-budget tentpole films which are neither a reboot, a sequel nor from an existing IP, Free Guy boasts a potentially fascinating what-if scenario involving a video-game character. That character in question is a dumb AI or NPC a.k.a. non-player character, where they mainly exist to fill in the background in a video game.
But in the case of this new film by Shawn Levy, marking his first feature-length effort since 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the NPC (Ryan Reynolds’ Guy) turns out to be more than just a background character. A background character who gained consciousness after living all his “life” doing the same old routine within the Free City open-world video game. His routine includes everything from waking up early in the morning and greets his pet goldfish to eating a bowl of cereal and wearing the same baby blue shirt with khaki pants to ordering the same coffee with cream and two sugars while on his way to work.
Working as a bank teller, Guy spends his time greeting each customer with a smile and his favourite quote, “Don’t just have a good day, have a great day”. He has a best friend named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard who also worked in the same bank. We also learn the bank is always robbed by criminals who wear “sunglasses”, which are actually based on the real-life players’ video-game avatars.
One day, he comes across a mysterious girl in sunglasses called Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) and from there, everything changes.
Originally scheduled to be released last year but forced to postpone due to a certain pandemic, Free Guy seems like a refreshing change of pace from the usual Hollywood offerings that dominated the cinema these days. The premise itself isn’t entirely original as Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn’s screenplay borrows heavily from other high-concept films, namely the Jim Carrey-starred The Truman Show as well as The Matrix and Wreck-It Ralph.
But it still qualifies as a novelty of sorts. Kudos to Shawn Levy and his team for creating the surrealistic and self-contained video-game world of Free City, complete with obligatory must-haves ranging from video-game avatars in different skins to floating first-aid kits, choices of weaponry and Grand Theft Auto-style outrageous stunts and violence. The heavily dependable CGI is put into good use here as Levy embraces the sensory overload of its video-game aesthetics. This, in turn, allows him to go crazy with some of the insanely choreographed action sequences from car chases to gunfights.
While Free Guy does a good job in the technical department, the overall storyline is bogged down by largely unfunny jokes. The film also sees Levy attempting to juggle various themes as he alternates from mixing meta humour and parody to a sci-fi action comedy, a dash of meet-cute romance between Guy and his dream girl, Molotov Girl and The Truman Show-like existential-crisis melodrama. The result is less of a coherent whole but rather a patchy piece of work.
As for the cast, Ryan Reynolds’ mix of cheery and snarky charm infused in his self-aware NPC character as Guy is fun to watch. Jodie Comer, who also can be seen in this month’s highly-anticipated historical drama The Last Duel, surprises me the most with her feisty and at times, sweet-natured turn as Molotov Girl. Lil Rel Howery provides decent comic relief as Guy’s best friend, Buddy while Joe Keery of Netflix’s Stranger Things fame brings enough likeable charm in his supporting role as the video-game programmer, Keys.
Some of the performances, however, are downright cringey including a certain dance-happy celebrity cameo and Taika Waititi’s annoyingly over-the-top and one-dimensional antagonist role as Antwan, the owner of the Soonami Games behind the open-world game of Free City.
Frankly, Free Guy has lots of potentials to turn this into more than just a perfunctory and glossy high-concept film. Even if let’s say Levy’s primary target is wanting us to sit back and enjoy the show as it is, the film remains a disposable entertainment by the time the end credits start rolling.