Now available on streaming services including HBOmax and Disney+
FREE GUY (Dir. Shawn Levy, 2021)
When movies are overly formulaic they often lead to overly formulaic reviews.
FREE GUY is one such film as it has many critics describing it as THE TRUMAN SHOW meets WRECK-IT-RALPH. Other titles that have been thrown into the premise mash-up are THE LEGO MOVIE, PLEASANTVILLE, and even THEY LIVE.
After identifying those influences, or direct steals, reviews will move on to the all the pop culture references that are layered through this addition to the stuck-inside-a-video-game premise. The story being that Ryan Reynolds stars as a perfectly content background character (a bank teller in a heist scenario) in a popular interactive Grand Theft Auto-style video game, who becomes aware that his world is virtual.
Reynold’s Guy (yes, his name is Guy) was clued into this revelation via his infatuation with Molotov Girl (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), a leather clad, cool-as-ice biker chick, who is a video game designer named Millie in the real world. Millie, and her programmer pal Walter (Stranger Things and Ozark’s Joe Kerry) had their source code for a game called Life Itself stolen (hey, shades of TRON!)by Taika Waititi as the arrogantly goofy Antwan, an evil CEO of Soonami Studios (I like that name). So our heroes, Guy, Millie, and Walter work together to claim their destinies, and free the cogs of Free City. Or something like that.
Oh, and this is the part of the review that acknowledges the sideline characters Buddy, played by the super affable Lil Rel Howery, who makes the best of his typical black best friend part; and Mouser, Walter’s wise-cracking Soonami co-worker played by Utkarsh Ambudkar. Both guys aid Guy in the game gags department so they are worth mentioning.
But it’s the rapid outpouring of pop culture references that are the real stars here. FREE GUY out-metas Reynold’s DEADPOOL flicks with Easter Eggs involving the MarvelVerse, THE SHINING, Pac-Man, Pokémon, Doctor Who, STAR WARS, Q*Bert, THE MATRIX, Jeopardy!, Rick and Morty, GROUNDHOG DAY, Mortal Kombat, READY PLAYER ONE, and even Diff’rent Strokes, among maybe dozens and dozens of other nods.
The fabric of all of these not-so-hidden touchstones that make up FREE GUY is patched together with so many familiar elements that it’s impossible to imagine the movie holding together without them. When Guy wields a STAR WARS lightsaber in a climactic battle with the arm of The Incredible Hulk in a scene featuring the theme from The Greatest American Hero, it’s supposed to be funny due to the audience’s recognition of these things, but it’s a cheap use of expensive aesthetics that probably only gathers a quick giggle because no clever comment is being made.
I ignored this movie when it was released last summer, as I suspected it was a noisy collection of movie and gamer clichés, but moviegoers lapped it up to the tune of over $300 million. I can understand that as it’s not without its charms as a busy yet breezy action comedy directed by Shawn Levy, whose career is mostly filled with feel-good rom coms, and family-friendly fare.
FREE GUY, even as a derivative amalgam, is fun, at least superficially. It would be more fun if we hadn’t spotted all of the references before, but maybe kids who haven’t seen all the movies, TV shows, and video games that make up its DNA will dig it. Nah, I bet that they’ll even sense that it’s so not its own thing.
And that’s my formulaic review of FREE GUY.