Free Guy is a science fiction action comedy that ticks all the right boxes if you’re a Ryan Reynolds fan or someone who just wants to indulge in mindless, popcorn-chomping fun. If you’re curious to know what the bastard child of The Truman Show (1998) and They Live (1988) would look like, your luck’s in. I’ll admit that Free Guy is objectively a good film; as a comedy it has a few laugh-out-loud moments and in terms of blockbuster action, it’s pretty decent too, but bloody hell what a wasted opportunity! This movie is after all, called “Free Guy” as in “Free Man” as in “Free Human”, and given that our existence may also be a simulation, surely this was the film to explore the meaning of life and what it means to be truly free? But nah, director Shawn Levy and writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn would rather you smirk and laugh at their classic-film-rip-off-a-thon and look elsewhere like Frank Drebin shouting “there’s nothing to see here” in front of an exploding fireworks factory.
Just to point out, I’m not someone who wants all films and TV shows to be metaphors for something else; Stranger Things for instance (which Levy produced) is merely there to rip-off, sorry, reference, old-school shit and entertain in the process (and it does a fantastic job of it) but Free Guy‘s premise just screams allegory. The story goes like this: In a game called “Free City” where players shoot, rob, and goodness know what else, an N.P.C. (non playable character) Guy (played by Reynolds) works as a mild-mannered bank teller. “Free City” is built on a less violent and idyllic programme-slash-game called “Life Itself” developed by programmers Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) in which all the characters have free will. Because of this, Guy suddenly becomes self-aware and discovers his world is a video game. Aided by Millie’s game character, Guy must transcend his humdrum life before the game’s publisher Antwan (Taika Waititi) puts an end to it. Even this short synopsis has “Garden Of Eden” and “Armageddon” written all over it but as someone who isn’t religious, I was hoping for a film that at least touched on human existence and consciousness, and fate versus free will.
The film opens with Guy describing his existence as living in “paradise” even though everyone around him is committing some sort of crime. I hoped this was a comment about how the public are desensitised to all the ills of the world because of their incessant nature, but I don’t think it was. Guy and his friend then talk about the “sunglasses people” (the game players) and this could have been a comment on class (never consort with the suits! – shout-out to The Secret Of My Success) but no. Every time something crops-up that could potentially mirror our lives, it’s abandoned. Instead, Lieberman and Penn seem content with nostalgia and oodles of plagiarism. I mean take a look: there’s The Truman Show-esque shoreline escape, the They Live sunglasses which show you the real world, the Avatar-esque sleep/coma stasis, Groundhog Day‘s death-to-waking-up loop, Dark City‘s transforming structures, and The Matrix-style realisation of a fake world and becoming a hero. Given that Shawn Levy’s best film up until this (Real Steel) was basically a rehash of Over The Top, it’s obvious that this trio of rip-off merchants have nothing better to do than reference better shit that we’d all rather be watching in the comfort of our homes. All that being said, there’s some hilarious lines here and there (including a setup for a joke about a homosexual and someone in a wheelchair murdering a baby) 💀. But those sorts of lines are amidst cliches of ugly nerd gamers and silly plot-points such as a worldwide gaming phenomenon being brought to its knees with an axe (like they wouldn’t have backup servers).
In terms of acting; Jodie Comer is good enough, Lil Rel Howery (apart from getting typecast as the lead’s friend) is good, Joe Keery is good and so too is Channing Tatum, but Taika Waititi is very irritating. Ryan Reynolds was of course born to play “Guy”; a naive, innocent, sheepish, likeable, handsome hero. Reynolds also plays “Dude” with his face superimposed onto bodybuilder Aaron W. Reed through shite visual effects which look like one of those daft Phillip Schofield webuyanycar adverts. Dude is a very funny character who has missing code and limited vocabulary so his catchphrase for instance is “catchphrase”. Dude would have been more effective if the character was a surprise and wasn’t shown everywhere in the days leading up to the release of this film.
Speaking of “Dude”, one of his lines “there’s three things I like …kicking ass… and a third thing” also reminded me of the “kick ass and chew bubblegum” line in They Live. I think I should have just stayed home, put the John Carpenter classic on and saved myself some petrol.
Shawn Levy, who has one of the worst filmographies in Hollywood, has created another average film. When switching between the game world and real world for instance, there’s no noticeable change in cinematography to show the gloom of one world and the cartoonishness of the other (I won’t say which should be which). That being said, there’s nothing noticeably wrong in terms of direction; like the writing, it just washes over you in an inoffensively, bland kind of way.
This could have easily been one of the best allegories about human existence and our souls being trapped in physical form in a world which is a simulation. Half-way through however, you realise this flick is literally about a game and gamers, especially with the IGN interview and the heap of Gamer/Streamer cameos. Free Guy ends with some hackneyed crap about love and building a business which is not how you make a memorable movie called “Free Guy”… Ignore this film’s premise, go and find love and create more life rather than discovering the meaning of life!
Ignoring the lack of subtext, Free Guy is similar to, and is as fun as Ready Player One (which Zak Penn also co-wrote). I recall that Ready Player One had me feeling disillusioned during the finale when the lead character spoke about how our world is real and how it’s oh so brilliant. In Free Guy, according to Jodie Comer’s Millie, apart from gun crime and a gun ownership problem, everything here on Earth is just peachy. 🧐
Aside from these small, pointless digs at contemporary society, the finale just wasn’t satisfying for me. Showing the A.I. characters content in their own world and us humans content in ours – as long as there’s shiny crap to distract us all, why would we ever want to leave? – just didn’t cut it. Contentment and complacency is not at all aspirational. I was hoping for a more subversive ending where Millie and Keys, just for a split second, discover that they too are in a game (a power-up somewhere or someone getting hit by a car in the background and surviving) but nope. This is basically an unintelligent and walled-off film that doesn’t want to rock the boat, and in doing so, it won’t become a classic in its own right. Free Guy is satisfied with reminding you of all the original films it ripped-off, films that actually had the balls to say something different and daring and that’s why they became cult favourites and outright classics. Free Guy is just a copy of something that was better, which is arguably a superior allegory of life than the actual plot we’re offered.
Given that 20th Century Studios are a subsidiary of Disney, this mega-mouse-corporation seems more concerned with getting buck for their other properties, so both Star Wars and Marvel get referenced toward the end (the latter coming with a Chris Evans cameo). When antagonist Antwan has an outburst about money (“What matters more than numbers?”) this ironically has more to do with Free Guy, its creators, and its studio, than anything else. Hollywood would rather you keep munching on your popcorn and spending your money on mindless crap (that will, let’s face it, be forgotten about in the decades to come) rather than leave the cinema with something to ponder. So go ahead, buy a few tickets to this one-dimensional film that has 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, just to keep the capitalism-misery-machine going. God forbid Hollywood says something about existence in a film about existence.
We’re Not Free.