Sometimes, there’s just no saving a picture from mediocrity; but in the right hands, even a milquetoast production can win the hearts of a cynical audience, provided it has the necessary elements. Said elements could be a poignant story, or dazzling visuals, or simply a charming performance from a famous thespian… or even a combination of the three.
Free City is a place where crime is so widespread that it’s more or less accepted as a daily occurrence by those who live there, casually treating the most violent of felonies as a minor inconvenience. What the city’s many residents don’t realise is that their home is actually the setting for an open-world video-game, and they are the non-playable characters – or NPCs – who have been programmed to endure any and all hostile behaviour.
The only NPC with a shred of self-awareness is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller who wonders if there’s more to his existence than stamping cheques and being threatened at gunpoint. Guy’s theory that proves true after a chance encounter with Molotov Girl, the avatar of human user named Millie (both played by Jodie Comer) who, much to her bemusement, explains how Guy can actively play the game, rather than just be part of it.
Much like Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), the appeal of Free Guy (2021) relies heavily on the viewer’s knowledge and appreciation of pop-culture, and gaming culture in particular – those who adhere to the latter category will undoubtedly distinguish Guy’s Free City game as an amalgamation of Grand Theft Auto Online and Fortnite. Non-gamers need not fear though, since these references to other properties are infrequent, and a greater emphasis is placed on the surprisingly compelling struggles of the characters.
One such character is Guy, whose desire to want more out of life is by no means unique, but is made endearing by his sweet, innocent and wholesome personality. It’s a performance that refreshingly deviates from Ryan Reynolds’ usual schtick, forgoing the snark and self-referential humour whilst retaining the exuberance which he now readily identifies with. Thus, Free Guy marks one of the rare instances where the presence of Reynolds doesn’t become grating.
Of equal interest is the secondary plot involving Millie, which sees her scouring Free City to locate a stolen piece of software supposedly hidden within the game. This conflict has much higher stakes than Guy’s, thereby being the more engaging of the two; but again, its charm is due largely to the performer – in this instance Jodie Comer – adding a disarming sweetness to their character. (It’s something of a trend for Comer, who has flexed her acting muscles on TV’s Killing Eve and is now well on her way to conquering Hollywood.)
Comer and Reynolds aren’t the only charmers in Free Guy, with the film profiting from the inclusion of plenty more talented actors. Lil Rel Howley is the standout within the digital realm of Free City, offering his usual buoyant energy as Guy’s lazily-named friend, Buddy; in live-action settings, events are made pleasant by the likes of Utkarsh Ambudkar and Stranger Things’ Joe Keery, both playing coders who work under the eccentric game developer Antwan, as performed by the ever-delightful Taika Waititi.
Weirdly, the sprawling Free City is a sight that proves just as alluring. Most of the location’s exterior shots have been filmed in Boston, Massachusetts, with visual effects being utilised when required to mask similarities and maintain the illusion of a video-game, the result being an environment that looks ideally suited to a free-roaming adventure. And for petrolheads, there’s extra fun to be had in spotting all the cars and motorcycles littered throughout.
While the visuals and cast are exemplary, the other aspects of Free Guy are somewhat lackadaisical. This includes the action, which is well-choreographed yet lacks the tension and excitement of that in other blockbusters; the comedy, with plenty of quips and gags but only one or two producing a giggle; and the references, which are of such low effort that they generate no glee whatsoever. All three of these elements do nothing to elevate the picture, serving only to make proceedings decidedly plain.
Yet when all is considered, Free Guy remains deserving of appreciation, even by those with only the slimmest awareness of pop-culture. A group of gifted performers, impressive effects and an unexpectedly touching screenplay are what satisfy most, all ensuring the film is never tedious nor bland.
Free Guy is currently screening in cinemas where open, and streaming on Disney+.