If you’re not currently in lockdown there are a handful of new releases to be sampled at the cinema. This includes Disney’s latest attempt to barnstorm the box office: Free Guy. Not the worst movie you’ll see this year, it’s almost wilfully shallow. There’s no shortage of promising themes but the filmmakers seem determined to reduce everything to pure bubblegum.
Part of the problem is Ryan Reynolds in the lead role. Bland, clean-cut, relentlessly cheerful, these are not qualities that make for memorable character acting. In Free Guy Reynolds plays Guy, a completely artificial character in a video game. Every day Guy wakes up in his clean, bland apartment, says hello to his goldfish and puts on a blue short-sleeved shirt. He picks up the same coffee at the same deli, and goes to work behind the counter at the bank.
On the way to the bank he passes various scenes of violence and mayhem, as exotic-looking hooligans steal, murder and destroy, with seeming impunity. No sooner does he start work than another brutal villain comes in and robs the place, while Guy and his security guard buddy, named – appropriately enough – Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), lie flat on the floor and make small talk.
Such is everyday life in Free City, a successful on-line game in which players score points for acts of violence committed by their avatars, distinguishable by their sunglasses. Guy and Buddy are NPCs – non-playing characters – whose lot in life is to perpetually act as victims to the hordes of digital assailants.
But Guy, like the rebellious toy in the toy box, is developing different ideas. Motivated by his attraction to one of the lady avatars, he steps out of his pre-determined role, upsetting the rules of the game. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we learn that Free City is being run by a tech entrepreneur named Antoine or Ant-wan (Taika Waititi), who has played fast and loose with an innovatory program developed by two young techies, Millie and Keys (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery).
Keys now works for Antoine, but Millie has gone rogue, desperate to retrieve her stolen intellectual property. It seems that Guy’s newfound consciousness is the result of an A.I. component that was part of Millie and Keys’s original design. Seeing Millie’s avatar, Molotovgirl, has awakened an unsuspected capacity for independent thought.
Guy soon becomes an Internet sensation. As “Blue Shirt Guy”, he goes around disarming the avatars and thwarting the spread of destruction. His identity is a mystery but for Antoine it’s good business until it’s no longer good business. Antoine’s grand scheme is to retire the first version of Free City and make everybody buy a new, bigger and better version, but the worldwide fascination with Blue Shirt Guy has sabotaged pre-sales of the upgrade.
All of this unfolds amid an endless series of violent yet comical encounters in Free City. Guy has a crush on Millie, while Keys is her neglected real-world love interest. But can one enjoy a romance with a man that doesn’t really exist? For Guy there is the crushing realisation that he’s nothing more than a fictional character in someone else’s game.
Somewhere in this tangled mesh of reality and cyberfantasy there are themes waiting to be explored. Free Guy satirises the mindless violence of on-line gaming, suggesting that most players simply take it for granted that games are only about killing or being killed, with extra points for extreme brutality. What’s it all about? Is it a relief from the stresses of work or family life? Is it a way of satisfying one’s inner psychopath? Do such games normalise violent impulses or act as a harmless outlet? Shawn Levy and his writers don’t seem to have an opinion, one way or another.
The idea of a romantic relationship between a real person and one created by A.I. opens up a field of possibilities but none are investigated in a script that lets this aspect of the narrative fall flat.
At every turn Free Guy takes the soft option. As a story about a man trapped in an imaginary world, it’s a poor second to Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). As a tale of an A.I. relationship, it has none of the charm of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013).
The film is aimed squarely at the huge gaming community that spends untold hours and dollars playing addictive on-line games. It even features cameos by well-known gamers such as Tyler ‘Ninja’ Bevins and Imane ‘Pokimane’ Anys, although these names will mean nothing to outsiders. I’ve always believed life’s too short to play video games, let alone pay any attention to the celebrities of the medium.
This doesn’t mean a billion-dollar industry with such a huge social impact is unworthy of a decent movie – but Free Guy ain’t that movie. It’s yet another feature in which obscene amounts of money have been spent on CGI while the story remains convoluted and the characters poorly-developed. The wise-cracking Ryan Reynolds of the Deadpool films has devolved into a smiling cypher, who wants his imaginary hometown to practice niceness instead of evil.
Neither Millie nor Keys are especially sympathetic or convincing as personalities. Even Taika Waititi, who looks like he just escaped from The Matrix, is unable to extract much life from his portrayal of the evil tech magnate. It’s hard to imagine anyone more evil than Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos and the weird dress sense doesn’t make up the deficit, although the kiwi accent was refreshing.
There’s a part of Free Guy that flirts with a critique or a parody of the on-line gaming industry, but another part that simply wants to cash-in on a niche audience, albeit a niche the size of the Grand Canyon. Despite all the cartoon violence, Levy has made a CGI comedy that refuses to look at the dark side of a phenomenon that has turned distraction into a way-of-life. It’s a relentlessly cute film about a brain-devouring cult.
Directed by Shawn Levy
Written by Matt Lieberman & Zak Penn
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery
USA/Canada/Japan, rated M, 115 mins.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 August, 2021