If the trailers were your first introduction to Free Guy then it would be no surprise if you came to any sort of negative preconceived notion about this film – I know I did. The marketing this film posits leads almost anyone with experience in film flops to assume that Free guy would be no different from the brainless blockbusters that arrive on an annual basis – but not the good kind, not the Marvel Studios kind of film that racks $1 billion at the box office, no; I assumed its overall reception (both critical and financial) would simply be a plummeting red line. But as the saying goes, assumptions are dangerous things and the movie industry itself is essentially high-stakes gambling with art; it’d be foolish to think you could predict any of it with certainty. It was nice to be humbled again.
Free Guy looks like the physical embodiment of a critical and financial flop; like some vapid studio film manufactured by a few suits at the top, under some illusion that Ryan Reynolds + gaming + blockbuster film-making = profit. Free Guy is all of those things, it includes corny humour that often fails to hit its mark, painful cameos by real life internet personalities, and two straight hours of Ryan Reynolds blurting out quippy lines with that sarcastic inflection he has in his voice — and yet, with all three of those problems in tow, this film succeeds in every way it set out to. That’s right, despite all the obstacles and all of the assumptions one could make from seeing the trailers, Free Guy is a genuinely fun summer blockbuster. Why and how? I don’t know and I don’t know – but let’s try and figure that out.
The strange thing about Free Guy is that, like the character of Guy himself (Ryan Reynolds), this film doesn’t excel at anything in particular; as mentioned, many jokes fall flat. But for every joke that misses, there’s one that will flatten the cinema with laughter. For every cringe inducing cameo by an internet personality, there’s a heartfelt moment between characters that elicits genuine emotion. And for every painful sassy remark Ryan Reynolds makes, there’s a clever one that a supporting character makes to liven up the dialogue. This is a film where the good outweighs the bad by a significant margin – it swallows up one’s desire to be pessimistic of its problems and almost forces you at gunpoint to have a good time, all while taunting you with the aforementioned issues. For those with an open mind and some degree of resilience Free Guy will be an infectiously fun experience if you’re ready to underestimate this unassuming flick.
The base story of Free Guy is a little chaotic – it primarily follows the story of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), an NPC within a video game called Free City who gains self awareness and is attempting to get into a relationship with a human player named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), all the while Guy must grapple with the reality that he lives within a video game. For such a seemingly simplistic story there are a lot of moving parts here, as the story itself juggles well over 3 core emotional themes, various comedic characters of all shapes and sizes, and a story that is in a constant state of change. It was markedly impressive to see a film keep all of these aspects in orderly fashion, as it is often under-appreciated just how difficult balancing comedy is in a film with so much going on. From the psychotic role played by Taika Waititi, to the hilariously unpredictable role by Channing Tatum, there’s a lot of strange comedic performances that make their way into this film, and yet, they all just work. Blockbuster film-making is harder than it seems, it’s an intense ballet with the prime directive of keeping its audience engaged, from the most high-strung to the most easily entertained, mastering it requires Swan Lake levels of finesse and while Free Guy doesn’t quite reach those hefty standards, it gets gracefully high.
Free Guy provides an ample use of its camera by not being completely stationary and having a little fluidity to its camera-movements. While there are still a significant amount of static multiple-camera setup shots in the film, there are moments where significant effort has been put in to emulate the video game concept inside the film. There is too much time spent in the real world to develop any sense of immersion inside its high concept but it builds a reliable atmosphere that the audience can get absorbed in. The film capitalizes upon its $100-125 million budget as the visual effects are comparable to tentpole blockbusters.
The world-building aspects of the film are largely underwhelming as the video game aspect of the film but that often ties into the thematic messages of the film in relation to how IPs are perceived. One of the more surprising elements of the film are the use of score and soundtrack that really elevate the tone the film has established and embrace the emotions behind particular scenes. Whether it is Jodie Comer’s rendition of Fantasy by Mariah Carey or the piece of music from the Paperman short film, all of it works in service to the emotions of the scene beat-by-beat.
Free Guy is better than it has any right to be – it works in spite of its issues, in fact, it flourishes in spite of them. I say with frankness, very few aggressively generic blockbusters end up surprising me, this is largely just a byproduct of how many I consume and how proficient one gets at gauging their overall quality before one has even seen them. Free Guy surprised me, and I would say its reception even surprised the studio – I would be surprised if its success was replicated with a sequel, but I’m totally game for that challenge.