Ryan Reynolds’ Video Game Movie ‘Free Guy’ Never Leveled Up
free guy, the director’s new film Shawn levy and featuring Ryan reynolds (in theaters Aug. 13), asks a probing question: How much culture can you pack? Not culture in the arrogant, old-fashioned sense of stuffy art museums and opera houses. Culture as in what’s really prevalent today, especially when it comes to video games and Twitch streaming and tech scammers. free guy is an immersion in this world, or at least an approximation of it by a large entertainment company.
The sordidity, the gloom that exists in reality – the society of gamers is, like all the others, not without its ills – cannot be found in Levy’s film. Neither is, really, any of its more admirable texture, inventiveness and creativity. Corn free guy is otherwise a complete attempt to tie the old movie business to an independently flourishing income stream, full of its own tribes and ecosystems that, to a steel-eyed executive, might look quite enticingly like a vast territory to be exploited.
Movies about video games – or based on them – have never been very good. the Destroy him Ralph movies are kind of sweet hymns to the mainstream digital culture that make it all feel like a niche. But if not, what do we have? Bob Hoskins’ filthy gonzo playing Mario the Plumber? Several pale films that give Mortal combat‘s gnarled violence a theatrical softening?
Maybe the problem has been that too many movies only place themselves in the near reality of the games they are based on, taking things too seriously and thus making everything silly. What if, instead, a video game film was aware of itself? What if the lead role was a video game character who slowly realizes that he is, in fact, a video game character and then has to question his very existence? It would be an effective way to both be in a video game and comment on the medium from the outside, a tidy little vehicle for the day’s favorite half-serious, half-arc analytical tone. So, free guy.
On occasion, the film makes decent use of its premise. The best stretches play like a modern Truman Show, in which a man confronts, with horror, that his whole reality is a lie. In The Truman Show, the brutal truth was that a lonely man was the unwitting star of a TV show, a celebrity commentary and the audience nosy who foresightedly predicted the era of reality TV. In free guy, the central argument is much more specific. It’s about the relentless, thoughtless violence that players around the world happily visit over non-playable characters (NPCs) in games like Grand Theft Auto. The film permeates such a carelessly processed digital sap – an unpretentious guy named Guy (Ryan reynolds) kindly stuck in its little programmed loop as part of a game called Free city– with an emerging consciousness that could well be the first artificial intelligence in the world.
That a video game character could evolve into a sentient being is an interesting speculation, akin to the bizarre innuendos of Westworld. Corn free guy is a great 20th century / Disney movie (it was in development at Fox before the merger, but went into production afterwards), so it can’t dwell on the dark too long, or really not at all. Instead, Levy and the writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn ground free guy as a broad celebration of the sunniest and most marketable facets of video game culture. Various stars of the online gaming world – prominent figures from YouTube and Twitch – make cameos as a Greek chorus commenting on the plot, and the film is full of Easter eggs and insider jokes that are not not in the know will only have to assume are intelligent.
Reynolds dutifully follows the studio’s mandate, playing an affable ordinary man with his signature wink (visible even through Deadpool’s mask). He’s in some ways the perfect star for a movie like this, his approachable, slightly dated mark of sarcasm easily syncing with the film’s soft pedal intentions. Reynolds is, as he is in dead Pool, more than happy to follow the company’s line while appearing to transgress it.
He is joined by Jodie comer, as a difficult customer in the game and a frustrated game designer in the real world. She serves a double duty of love interest, for Guy in Free city and for a real programmer played by Joe keery. Lil rel howery (always welcome) is Guy’s best friend in the game, content with his spiritless existence and reluctant to follow Guy on the path to enlightenment. Taika Waititi is the villain, the conceited leader and accomplice of the company that operates Free city, and the wrong half of the film’s half-hearted poseur costumes compared to the real creatives.
A lot of free guy seems deliberately and uniquely designed to make 19-year-olds scream “Fuck yeah!” Onscreen, but I suspect the film is too sincere and generalized to deserve that fanboy affection. The rules and physics of the video game part of the film are not rigid enough; it’s just not that believable that what we’re seeing is an actual playable game. The references are cheesy (I think the in-game celebs chosen as the cameos will earn a few stares) and hopefully a particularly blatant moment of Disney’s IP-bending is greeted as nothing more than the cynical annihilating gesture that it is. free guy has moments of dizzying action and features intriguing sci-fi speculation, but it’s decidedly not a cool movie.