Free Guy (2021)
Life’s too short to be a background character.
If you’re a non-gamer, you might not have heard of the term NPC, which stands for Non-Playable Character. They’re those guys in the background of a video game who provide minor obstacles for the main player, non-hostile characters that simply give the environment a more real-life feeling. Most have scripted or automatic dialogue that’s usually triggered by certain actions; these characters repeat phrases such as ‘Get on with it,’ or ‘You need something?’ Free Guy explores what might happen if an NPC (or a background character) living in a popular video game one day decided to deviate from the script. Taking its cues from films like The LEGO Movie (2014) and The Truman Show (1998), Free Guy is elevated by the presence of stars Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi, Jodie Comer, and Lil Rel Howery. It’s an enjoyable yet unremarkable action-comedy that focuses on well-worn themes of embracing individuality, especially if that means speaking up and questioning the status quo.
Just like The LEGO Movie’s Emmet, Ryan Reynolds plays a very content ‘cog in the system’ named Guy, an NPC who’s unaware that he lives in a Grand Theft Auto-like open-world game called Free City. All of Guy’s days are basically the same. He wakes up with a spring in his step, throws on his blue uniform, grabs his morning coffee (repeating the line, ‘don’t just have a good day … have a great day!’ to just about every other NPC he interacts with) then heads to his job as a bank teller, where he works with his best friend, a security guard named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). Guy is pretty much programmed to stay out of people’s way, including the crooks that regularly rob his place of employment.
Although NPCs aren’t supposed to interact with the ‘Sunglasses People,’ who are the main players of Free City, Guy’s life is forever changed when he passes the woman of his dreams, a sunglasses-wearing gal named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) with a kick-ass avatar. Deviating from his day-to-day routine, Guy follows his fantasy girl until she lets him in on a big secret, giving him a pair of sunglasses to try on. This allows Guy to preview what the real environment looks like (he sees medikits, currency tokens, hubs, and other things that gamers should find familiar). This leads Guy to discover that he’s an NPC inside a violent video game. Determine to ‘level up’ to impress Molotov Girl, Guy begins to reject his programming, going from zero to hero. He rids the metropolis of some of its crime and violence, making Free City a better place for those who reside there. In doing so, he becomes an instant internet sensation (known as Blue Shirt Guy), with many trying to discover the true identity behind the mysterious gamer.
All the while, we cut to the real world, where we follow Molotov Girl’s real-life identity, a genius programmer named Millie who, along with her partner Keys (Joe Keery), developed Free City as a Sims-type life-simulation game called Life Itself. The problem is, they sold it to corporate gaming juggernaut Soonami, whose CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi) stole the tech to cultivate his explosive, blood-thirsty open-world game. Millie, however, is using Molotov Girl to acquire evidence of the theft hidden deep within the game’s server to sue Antwan. To do this, however, she’ll have to go against her former partner Keys, who’s working for Soonami in order to get his weekly paycheck. Now with Guy leveling up and joining her cause, Millie must fight to reclaim what is rightfully hers, all the while protecting Guy, whom she discovers might very well be the most remarkable breakthrough in artificial intelligence history.
Directed by vanilla filmmaker Shawn Levy, Night at the Museum (2006), Free Guy moves along at a breezy, easy-to-digest pace. Levy embraces video game culture and creates some fun sequences throughout. There’s a great chase early on, where Keys and his programming pal Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s dressed in a bunny suit, go after Guy. A montage where Guy levels up is also enjoyable. However, the script by Matt Lieberman, The Christmas Chronicles (2018), and Zak Penn, Ready Player One (2018), is very clichéd and unsurprising with its messages of originality and going against the crowd. It also touches on ideas that were explored better in films like The Matrix (1999), The Truman Show, and even Spielberg’s Ready Player One, chiefly how people today have become so obsessed with living online that they’ve forgotten what’s outside of their screens. Additionally, Free Guy comments on how big corporations favor recognizable IPs over originality, with the little guy ultimately sticking it to the big guy, which is somewhat ironic here, seeing as Disney gobbled up 20th Century Fox in 2019 and acquired Free Guy through the merger.
Ryan Reynolds essentially holds the whole film together with his snarkiness and goofball nature. The Deadpool star imbues Guy with a surprising amount of depth, in turn creating a charming, romantic, and very wholesome character that audiences can root for. Killing Eve (2018 – 22) sensation Jodie Comer proves that she’s more than capable of holding her own playing opposite Reynolds and delivers a memorable performance as Millie; so much so it’s hard to believe this is her first major part in a motion picture. Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit (2019), is clearly having a blast playing villain Antwan, even if he overplays the role. In contrast, Joe Keery, who portrays whiz kid Walter ‘Keys’ McKeys, is great, demonstrating that he’ll be okay once Stranger Things (2016 – ) comes to a close. Lil Rel Howery, Get Out (2017), brings heart to his comic relief role of Buddy, whilst Channing Tatum, Magic Mike (2012), is a hoot as Revenjamin Buttons, a dance-happy ‘main player’ avatar who happens to be a huge fan of Blue Shirt Guy.
Moreover, the film sports a stack of gaming in-jokes and Easter eggs, including a heap of blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameos from real-life gamers and streamers, such as DanTDM, Jacksepticeye, Ninja, Pokimane, and Australia’s LazarBeam. There’s even a masked appearance by Hugh Jackman, who’s suited up and plays a shifty avatar in a shady alley. And oh, listen out for voicework from stars Tina Fey, Dwayne Johnson, and John Krasinski, who lend their chops to a heap of characters. On the topic of ‘references,’ while Free Guy does feature a few amusing winks to some massive intellectual properties in the last act, it does kinda feel that Fox is flexing their franchise library, making these moments come off as eye-rolling as opposed to cheer-worthy.
On the whole, Free Guy looks sleek and sports a cool aesthetic, mainly the in-game production design by Ethan Tobman, Black is King (2020). While Levy does go CG-heavy for a lot of the film — we have crazy car chases and see helicopters crashing into high-rises so often that it becomes second nature — it works within the constraints of the narrative. Sure, Free Guy isn’t as timely or funny as those that have come before it but still succeeds as a mindless distraction for folks looking for a bit of escapism. Plug in and enjoy the ride, and maybe get away from your own reality too, even if only briefly.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)