Free Guy, 2021.
Directed by Shawn Levy.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Camille Kostek, Kimberly Howe, Matty Cardarople, Ninja, Alex Trebek, Aaron W Reed, JackSepticeye, Pokimane, LazarBeam, David Morwick, and DanTDM.
A bank teller discovers that he’s actually an NPC inside a brutal, open-world video game.
Free Guy continues the recent trend that the best video game movies are not shoddy adaptations but ones exploring and deconstructing their mechanics. Directed by Shawn Levy (who at one point was directing the adaptation of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune) with a script from Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn (the latter of which was a screenwriter on Steven Spielberg’s fantastic Ready Player One), the world here involves a chaotic metropolis game world known as Free City, which seems to be a stand-in for Grand Theft Auto Online given that, among the various in-game missions there are to take on, robbing banks and amassing money to purchase anything from personable fashion to exotic cars (all of which can be saved by bringing them into safe houses) seems to be high on the priority list.
Among the NPC’s (nonplayer characters) in this digitized universe (although, whenever the narrative is inside the game, it is brought to life with live-action) is the eponymous Guy (a cheerful and smiling Ryan Reynolds that excels at cluelessness and dorky heroics), a bank teller that goes about life on his predetermined and programmed coding. Every day he wakes up, wishes his pet goldfish good morning, enjoys the view outside his apartment, grabs some coffee, and meets up with his friend Buddy (the bank’s security worker, played by the always funny Lil Rel Howery) on the way to work. However, it’s not your average city stroll as the background is littered with anarchy ranging from carjacking to explosions to supposed good guys doing heroic things. For the most part, the shift at the bank is monotonous and mundane, although there is a catch.
It’s guaranteed that the bank will be stormed by armed burglars wearing sunglasses at some point throughout the day. Such eyewear is meant to indicate that someone in the real world is controlling a character. Essentially, they are players of the game wreaking havoc for their amusement (as just about anyone who has ever played something like Grand Theft Auto has indulged in). At the same time, the NPCs are forced into complying and unable to fight back even if they wanted to.
Guy turns out to be unlike other NPCs, though, as he begins questioning if there is more to life, quickly developing a crush on a woman player character fitted for action and on a personal mission. Eager to talk to her, Buddy reminds Guy that people wearing sunglasses don’t speak to them. And while there is a good reason for that (NPCs typically only have canned dialogue and are unable to interact with actual responses, although Guy and Buddy are capable of saying slightly more otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a movie), it presents an intriguing concept of class inside a game world. Nevertheless, the woman turns out to be Molotov Girl, known in the real world as Millie (both played by Jodie Comer), trying to break into a secure warehouse containing a video log containing damning evidence in regards to nefarious actions of the game’s director, Antoine (Taika Waititi eccentric and zany with such specificity that you could probably ask him a question about every single one of his line readings and get an exciting answer as to his approach on each one).
Unfortunately, to be of any assistance, Guy will have to level up inside the game which he tries to do nonviolently and with positivity, causing him to become a heroic status symbol in the real world and given the moniker Blue Shirt Guy. While this is shown through montage, it’s also a clear example that these are filmmakers that actually understand gaming loops and their progressive mechanics.
In the real world, Millie was developing, alongside her boyfriend Keys (Joe Keery) that still works as a programmer on Free City for Antoine, an artsy independent game that sounds like The Sims but with less player control and more focus on watching digital characters evolve into sentience, with wishes and dreams of their own to be achieved inside of the gaming world they inhabit. Now broken up, the former couple still has reason to believe Antoine stole the code and implemented it inside his own creation. It’s also a believable hunch considering Taika Waititi plays Antoine as every immoral and greedy aspect of the gaming industry dialed up to 11. Basically, he’s playing Activision’s Bobby Kotick.
Initially, it’s somewhat of a bummer whenever Free Guy switches over to the real world investigation of what’s going on with the coding of the game, but the story is able to find some thoughtful connective tissue touching on how people’s online interactions do matter and shouldn’t just be relegated as meaningless because they aren’t happening in reality. Surprisingly, the filmmakers demonstrate strong knowledge about the gaming industry, especially when tearing its boundless greed a new asshole. It’s a movie that is concerned with sticking up for independent gaming of all things, which might be its most fascinating aspect.
With that said, the gesture loses some of that sincerity and impact when, because this is technically a Disney movie, there are forced inclusions of Hollywood IPs such as Marvel superhero movies and Star Wars. Some of those frustrations are easily balanced by several creative action beats (some sequences see developers changing up the game world on the fly, which we see reflected through equally nifty special effects) and charming romance inside and outside the game. Visually, the movie can also be too busy (thankfully, the amount of on-screen mayhem slows down during serious story beats) and lacks color. However, this is somewhat offset by an even more active screen (everything from armories to mission objectives is sizeably labeled in color).
Not every joke lands (especially a few that rely on sexual innuendo for laughs), and the narrative doesn’t necessarily dive deep into the various themes it brings up (it’s also not subtle, and I can imagine plenty of “gamers” whining about the message of kindness inside online gaming). Still, the imaginative concept, dynamic action, and finger on the pulse grasp of the gaming industry’s greed make Free Guy refreshingly entertaining with more substance than meets the eye.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com