I’ve been an avid gamer ever since I first played Super Mario Brothers on my yellow brick of a Gameboy in the ‘90s. Video games have come far since then, not just in terms of its sheer leaps in technology, but also commercially. Much like cinema, in its infancy video gaming was viewed as nothing more than a fad, but has since grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry which, as pointed out by Hasan Minhaj on his Netflix show Patriot Act, makes more money than film’s worldwide box office, music’s streaming and album sales, and the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB combined. That’s insane!
It’s only natural, then, that Hollywood jumps at opportunities to adapt the most beloved video games of fans across the world. The problem is, they can’t seem to get them right.
2019 saw the release of two notable video game adaptations: Detective Pikachu and The Angry Birds Movie 2. I mention these two films because they are the only adaptations to have a “Fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, which requires a minimum 60% approval rating from critics. It’s a sad, sad day when over 30 years of adapting the medium amounts to Detective Pikachu, which has a score of 68%, being proclaimed the greatest of them all.
Of course, it’s worth noting that film is subjective, and a Rotten Tomatoes score can be considered arbitrary in ways. Nonetheless, it’s a wonder they haven’t gotten it overwhelmingly right at some point given the wealth of material studios have to choose from.
Enter, then, Shawn Levy’s upcoming film Free Guy, starring Ryan Reynolds. What’s interesting about this film is that it’s not an adaptation of any one video game, but rather of familiar concepts within the medium, such as the aerial entrance of the recently popularised battle royale and the open world format of the Grand Theft Auto series. The film then turns these concepts on their head by affording control to what is known in video games as an NPC (or non-playable character), played by Reynolds.
The concept is certainly an interesting one, but the trailer alone has alarms bells going off in my head.
I would generally consider it unfair to judge a film prior to its actual release, but recent releases, which I will go into in a moment, have turned me into something of a cynic. Plus, let’s face it, we all judge films by their initial trailers to some degree. That’s why they’re there!
Let’s take the recently released musical adaptation of Cats, as an extreme example, which is the total disaster everyone knew it would be from the moment its first trailer aired. On a slightly different note, Disney marketed Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with the usual sense of mystery and intrigue, as fans practically banked on its quality with the return of JJ Abrams. Yet response has been mixed, with the consensus being that the conclusion to the 9-film, 42-year saga is overstuffed and underwhelming.
Though again, these are just the personal opinions of others, and consensus between critics and audiences can vary wildly. Yet it still begs the question: does Free Guy hold much promise? I can only offer my own individual opinion, and my answer is a reserved no.
For starters, my impressions from the trailer is that Levy and his screenwriters are looking to cash in on what are the most popular aspects of video games, rather than trying to do anything meaningful with them like The Lego Movie did with its titular brand. If the garbage trove of past video game-related films has taught us anything, it’s that spectacle doesn’t make up for a complete lack of substance.
Levy’s history as a director doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort either, as his visuals and effects have generally drawn more praise than the depth of his narratives. That’s not to say he lacks merit as a director, as he is clearly capable of helming a film. I just feel he’s a better producer, a role that has even nabbed him an Oscar nomination in recent years.
If all this isn’t worrying enough, the film might be targeting gamers, but it doesn’t seem geared towards any particular age group. It depicts a lot of action and even some borderline graphic violence, along with a very racy (and totally cliché) sexual reference, yet its PG-13 tone feels like it won’t commit to one thing or the other. Free Guy feels like it will occupy a purgatorial space that, in my experience, almost always comes off as muddled. It reminds me somewhat of Mike Meyers’ Cat in the Hat, and that is NOT a good thing.
The cast, however, does offer a sense of hope. Reynolds looks to be as reliable and impossibly charismatic as ever, who has converted even the most stone-hearted of his sceptics since first appearing in Deadpool. He will be supported by the equally likeable Taika Waititi, who recently directed and starred in one of the most talked about films of the year, Jojo Rabbit, as well the very talented Emmy winner Jodie Comer of Killing Eve.
Sadly, a cast can only elevate a film so much, and it looks like they may have their work cut out for them. Still, I’m going to give Free Guy its due course and go in with an open mind. It’s my duty as a critic, and I’ve been wrong before. I’m just not holding my breath.