2021, Movies

Free Guy (2021, Shawn Levy)

This is an intermittently amusing and clever film about an NPC that becomes sentient. I have to say, I had no idea what it was about from the title, though the trailer clarified that for me. On the whole, given the cast and the conceit, it’s a film that should work more often than it does.

So the idea is pretty good: an NPC one day starts thinking he’s a normal character and joins the game. Sure, versions of this type of story are as old as Greek philosophy (if not older) and there are echoes of other Hollywood movies set in the real world (The Truman Show for example) but it still feels like a pretty fresh take on the story, at least as far as I’m aware. And if there’s anyone who can pull off something like this, it’s Ryan Reynolds.

But though it’s often quite clever, it’s not funny enough for me. The jokes don’t always land and there is an over-reliance on references (because of course there is as it’s a 21st century Hollywood film) that don’t necessarily fit with the concept. (Why are there so many Star Wars references for example? Haven’t we done them to death already?) For me, it felt like the jokes were landing more frequently as we approached the climax of the film….but then we approached the climax of the film and, like so many Hollywood movies of this type, it got more serious. More on that in a moment.

I will say, the film has at least one laugh-out-loud sequence involving a cameo by someone who is perhaps as attractive to women fans as Reynolds, and it is far and away the best part of the film, even if it’s entirely unnecessary. I don’t want to tell you anything about it, because it was a surprise to me and it should be a surprise to you. For me, it’s also a pretty good example of why the rest of the film doesn’t work as well – this sequence is just so much funnier and fun than the rest of the film. (Remember, this is a video game movie! It should be fun.)

One thing I will say is interesting about the film is the attempt to at least capture gamer culture as part of the movie. I don’t know how many video game films are incorporating Twitch and stuff like that into them but it did feel like a necessary addition. Some of those people were probably influencers and I just don’t know.

For me, the two biggest problems are intertwined: a typical Hollywood inability to really understand and resent technology in a realistic way and a typical Hollywood inability to continue the humour through the end of the film.

So the technology part of it starts out not being a problem but rapidly becomes one. It gets harder and harder to take as the film reaches its climax. Here are some various issues:

[SPOILERS!]

  • Is it really impossible to copy all or just some of a MMO? (That would have ended the plot, I guess.)
  • It’s a massive world but there are really only maybe 50 NPCs?
  • It’s a massive world but when the NPCs abandon their jobs there are only a handful of human characters shown in the game?
  • Apparently, when you reboot a program it slowly shuts down
  • Apparently, when you boot players from a game, they slowly disappear
  • Apparently, as you destroy servers, parts of the game disappear but the game stays online.

I understand it’s entertainment but a better film would have found clever ways to deal with these problems.

And that brings us to the other major problem which is that the film gets progressively more serious, as these films often due, during the climax. The notable exception is Dude, who provides some comic relief. And while this is happening, we really don’t understand the motivations of some of the characters, particularly Waititi’s character, who fails to see a goldmine staring him in the face, and the NPCs themselves, who are just cheering Guy’s attempt to cross the bridge because… Reasons? (Also, Mouser is a reliable friend?) There is a lot of corny sentiment at this point and the lack of good jokes really feels sort of fatal. I found the last 15 minutes or so (perhaps even longer) quite trying, and only occasionally did Dude do something to remind me I was watching a comedy.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, maybe it was because I was in a drive-in for the first time in nearly 30 years, but I didn’t think enough of the jokes landed to redeem the mother problems. It’s a good idea but the execution isn’t quite there.

5/10

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