Free Guy may be the most entertaining video-game-inspired movie yet. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Free Guy may be the most entertaining video-game-inspired movie yet.
Better than most video-game-inspired movies.
Anyone who’s seen any of Hollywood’s many previous efforts in the genre will know what that means. I’m not referring to the myriad direct film adaptations including the Resident Evil, Lara Croft or Street Fighter films, but rather such labored cinematic meta-commentaries on virtual worlds as Tron, Wreck-It Ralph and Pixels. Shawn Levy’s new adventure-comedy starring Ryan Reynolds rises above the latter camp, and passionate gamers will delight in its non-stop delivery of in-jokes and Easter eggs. Those unfamiliar with such terms as “open-world” and “NPC” (non-player character) are likely to be less amused, although Reynolds’ boundless appeal, the frequently witty screenplay and expertly rendered technical aspects make the film enjoyable summer frivolity.
Reynolds plays the aptly named Guy, who wakes up every morning in his minimally appointed apartment and proceeds to engage in the exact same daily routine working as a bank teller, wearing a never-changing outfit of a blue button-down shirt and khakis. He has the same joyous reaction every time his barista presents him with his usual coffee order, and barely flinches when armed robbers storm his bank on a daily basis. He does, however, react strongly to the sight of Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer, as terrifically badass here as in Killing Eve), a leather-clad biker chick on whom he develops an instant fixation. So much so, in fact, that he begins to wonder if there’s something more to life.
Unfortunately for Guy, there really isn’t, since he’s merely an NPC in an open-world video game called “Free City,” created by a company called “Soonami” headed by obnoxious, greedy mogul Antwan (a gonzo Taika Waititi, wildly but entertainingly over-the-top). The game was co-created by his 20something employees Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie (Comer), who lost control of their invention but frequently inject themselves into it as avatars.
When Guy rebels and attempts to insert free will into his life, chaos results in the game, threatening Antwan’s lucrative franchise, which he’s intending to expand on with — what else — a sequel, “Free City 2.” Along the way, Millie, or at least her avatar Molotovgirl, finds herself falling for Guy, joining him in his efforts to save the only world he knows.
Got all that? It’s a little confusing, to be sure, especially if you haven’t spent countless hours lost in video games yourself. Thankfully, director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum franchise) does an excellent job delineating between the real and virtual worlds (Guy can see the difference when he puts on special glasses, much like Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s They Live), with the lavish special effects and production design providing the sort of immersive experience gamers crave.
Co-screenwriters Zak Pen (who has some experience with this sort of thing, having written Ready Player One) and Matt Lieberman (The Christmas Chronicles) provide plenty of in-jokes to their target audience, but also manage the more difficult feat of making us care about their characters, even the virtual ones. The friendship between Guy and his fellow NPC, bank guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), who’s far less eager to break free from his narrow parameters, is genuinely touching, as are Molotovgirl’s growing feelings for the endlessly upbeat Guy. While the film’s attempt at Truman Show-style social commentary about the nature of existence lacks the depth to truly resonate, it at least earns points for thematic ambition.
The movie is also very funny at times, even if many of the gags, including cameos by real-life gamer celebrities, will go over many people’s heads. There are plenty of other surprises as well, which, except for the poignant last screen appearance of the late Alex Trebek, won’t be revealed here. Let’s just say that Disney, much like Warner Bros. in the recent Space Jam: A New Legacy, isn’t shy about exploiting its intellectual content.
While Comer excels in her dual roles and the supporting players, also including Utkarsh Ambudkar, are consistently engaging, it’s safe to say that Free Guy wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without its leading man. Reynolds is an actor who often seems to be commenting on his own performances even as he’s giving them. Here he perfectly embodies the sweet innocence of his character, who isn’t even sure he exists but definitely knows that he wants to. You find yourself rooting for him as if he were your very own avatar.