IP runs the world these days, as we have lamented much here at Spinning the Reel. Ten times out of ten Hollywood will choose to mine every last ounce out of something people enjoyed until they’ve stripped that original idea of all its soul, before taking a risk on something unproven. It’s why Disney has released more Marvel movies in the last 5 years than original concepts (they’ve released more live action remakes of their animated back catalogue too.) On its face, Free Guy seems to belie all that.
Finally hitting screens after a long delay, Free Guy is the story of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a Non-Player Character (NPC) in a wildly popular online multiplayer game called Free City. Guy’s programing is to wake up every morning and go to his job at a bank that is constantly being robbed by “sunglass people,” aka the players of the game in which he lives. One day, amid all the monotony of a simulated life, Guy is jolted alive by molotovGirl (Jodie Comer) — a real character in a real movie that really came out — a player determined to expose that Free City and its creator Antwan (Taika Waititi ) stole its code from a project she had created.
If that all sounds a bit technical for a summer blockbuster, it can be at times even if the gaming and coding talk lives mostly on the periphery of Free Guy. At heart this movie is just another showcase for Reynolds to play a wisecracking, meta, Deadpool-esque character, mercifully a bit less sardonic this time. It’s a role he knows well, adopting it as almost a persona since he abandoned his earlier career path as a Hollywood Heartthrob in favor of playing the Merc with a Mouth. Deadpool (twice), The Hitman’s Bodyguard (also twice), Detective Pikachu (soon to be twice) of all things and now Free Guy are all variations on this niche that Reynolds has found. It certainly works for him, better than the era of performances he gave in Green Lantern and The Proposal, but it gets a little tiring.
As a Reynolds character is want to do, Guy takes his newfound sentience and uses it to be an unlikely hero, helping his friends while cracking one liners so stale they must have originated from a focus group of failed comedians. He makes the best out of discovering that his home is nothing but a computer server and helps his beloved molotovGirl uncover the evidence she needs to save her life’s work and also Guy’s home and friends.
More interesting, conceptually at least, is the plot unfolding outside the game, in the real world. Antwan is hard at work on a sequel to the wildly popular Free City, determined to burn down everything that came before it in a blatant cash grab. The veil of criticism for tired rehashes of existing ideas is so thin that Antwan literally says out loud that all anyone wants is IP and sequels, questioning why he would ever make something new when he could just make four more of the thing that’s made him rich.
However blunt, the conflict sets up an interesting contrast between money hungry executives pushing more of the same and independent developers pushing the boundaries. At least it would if Ryan Reynolds hadn’t announced mere days after Free Guy released that Disney already wants a sequel.
Every kernel of an intriguing idea in Free Guy falls apart rather quickly. It is naturally difficult to take seriously critiques of uninspired studios in a film that features multiple MCU easter eggs and was directed by Shawn Levy, the guy who made three Night at the Museum movies (seriously, there are 3 Night at the Museum movies) Even the premise, very obviously inspired by The Truman Show, fails to capture even an ounce of the authenticity of its muse.
Both Truman and Guy garner sympathy and adoration for being nice, likable guys in a world fabricated for the enjoyment of others but the comparison splinters apart very quickly after that. We feel for Truman because he is a real living and breathing person whose life is stolen from him by a manipulative corporation. His world is fake, but his experience and sense of loss is tangibly real. Guy on the other hand is never anything more than code in a computer. We are asked to care about him by proxy of what he means to one of the few human characters in the film. But because Guy is the undeniable protagonist of his eponymous film, Jodie Comer has to do tremendous amounts of work in limited screen time to convince us that Guy is worth saving because he’s important to her.
Free Guy sets up so much that goes woefully unexplored. Instead what it does explore thoroughly feels like listening to a mediocre cover of a song you grew tired of years ago. Reynolds is giving a one dimensional comedic performance we’ve seen a dozen times already (including just two months ago.) Even the whole construction of the film is just an unholy mixture of other films — The Truman Show, Ready Player One, Deadpool — that managed to better execute on their premise to varying degrees.
None of this is to say that Free Guy is a total waste. Hollywood should make films critiquing itself, just do so without bowing down to the behemoth studios you’re meant to be slighting. For all the repetition, there is a reason that Ryan Reynolds keeps getting work. His charms fade more with each attempt at the same character, but his particular brand of humor still can draw some laughs. Free Guy suffers in comparison to what it could have been and what it compares itself to, continuously falling short of being the rare original blockbuster it would have you believe it is. 4/10