Pretty Fly for a Ryan Reynolds Movie
Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It's just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).
It's a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it's not been directed by Christopher Nolan).
That said, I wasn't particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy's Free Guy, partly because it didn't honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it's a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.
Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.
He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.
The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn't hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…
This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer's character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?
I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn't feel like it's obviously ripping off any of them in particular.
The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It's not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There's a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.
Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can't think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi's grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn't profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).
A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.
...Stillwater, a very odd amalgam of drama and thriller from director Tom McCarthy and star Matt Damon. Damon plays an Oklahoma roughneck whose daughter (Abigail Breslin) is in prison in France after being convicted of murdering her flatmate. He is desperate to prove her innocence, perhaps too desperate, and when it seems there is a chance of doing so, it's not surprising he starts making sub-optimal choices...
But apart from all this, Damon is also getting close to a single mother (Camille Cottin) and her child who he has met in the course of his latest visit, and the film is a mixture of low-key character scenes between them (these are genuinely engaging) and the stuff with Damon looking for justice for his daughter (these are not so great). The whole film is paced and played like a drama, so the thriller elements really don't work; the fact it seems to be based on the real-life Meredith Kercher case also strikes a very uneasy note. Some nice performances, but fundamentally flawed and not especially satisfying to watch.