I am not much of a gamer to have the base knowledge as to what it might be in a video game that hampers its translation into a more cinematic experience. But whatever it is or isn’t, film history is littered with failed attempts to explore the idea of video games, their part in culture or even to just bring a game’s storyline to the big screen.
Writer/director Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) is perhaps the first video game movie as it took Jeff Bridges and audiences into the hidden cyber realm of the nescient computer game revolution. And Free Guy definitely owes a few tips of the hat in Tron‘s direction for some of its story elements. But from their we got offerings like the Fred Savage-starring and Nintendo product placement extravaganza The Wizard (1989) and dozens of failed adaptations like Super Mario Brothers (199-), Ecks Versus Server and Hardcore Henry (20–). The closest that the genre has ever come to good was with some of the Resident Evil films, which are entertaining enough in the moment, but fairly forgettable in the walk from the theater back to one’s car.
(Note – I am only referring to feature fiction films here. There are a number of documentaries that look at video game culture that are well worth your time, chief among them being King Of Kong, which looks at two rivals vying for the title of world champion of the arcade game Donkey Kong.)
Enter Free Guy.
Not based on an actual game, Free Guy tells the story of Guy (Ryan Reynolds doing yet another version of his usual affable, wisecracking screen persona), a background, computer-controlled character in the multi-player world game Free City. He goes through his day completely unphased by the violence and destruction caused by the “Sunglasses People,” the avatars of real world game players running amuck through the cyber landscape of the city. That is, until he sees one “sunglasses person”, MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer), and instantly falls in love with her. It is revealed that that moment is what awakens in Guy true independence, creating the first actual artificial intelligence. And in an attempt to get closer to MolotovGirl, he finds unknowingly becomes viral internet sensation as moves through the world of the game against all expectations. In the real world, MolotovGirl is actually Millie, a programmer who believes that the base code that Free City is built on was stolen from her by game developer Antoine (Taiki Waiti). Her game avatar soon joins with Guy to try and uncover the truth, but when Antoine learns what the two are up to, he takes some drastic steps to keep his secrets hidden.
Free Guy is not just content to be a fun action comedy. Its script actually digs into some of the ramifications of the premise at play here in two interesting ways. The first is acknowledging that Guy, as a fully self-aware program, was indeed a true artificial intelligence, an actual conscious person. While the screenplay doesn’t take that idea and actually have someone say implicitly that what Antoine tries to do in the climax of the film is essentially murder, the implication is certainly there for the audience to understand.
And that leads to the second, perhaps more interesting idea – that of how people react when they find out that background characters like Guy are more than just expendable fodder to inflict violence upon. The movie states that Free City players pulled way back on harming the game’s non-player characters once “Blue Shirt Guy” started to go viral. It’s an interesting concept and one that comments on the relationship that people have with violent games and the alleged effects of those games on players.
Special commendation should be give to Comer in what is almost the double role of Millie/MolotovGirl. In the realm of the game, Molotov Girl is a sexy, ass-kicker, strutting confidently through the cyber landscape in tight leather pants and a armored bustier. But in the real world, Millie’s only armor is the oversized, frumpy sweaters she wears and oft times Millie is far less self-assured than when she is controlling her cyber-avatar. It is a performance that depends on some subtly shading to distinguish the differences and Comer pulls it off well.
To be sure, Free Guy never folds under the weight of its premise. Director Shawn Levy finds the rare middle ground between action and comedy and firmly plants this movie’s flag. The ending may contain one note that may be too saccharine for some, but it is a natural conclusion to everything that has come before.