Free Guy

Free Guy is built on a great concept: Guy, a non-player character (or NPC) doesn’t realize he’s an NPC, or that he essentially lives in a video game world.  Guy’s lack of awareness in his Grand Theft Auto existence would have been funny on its own.  Ryan Reynolds trades in his passive-aggressive sarcasm for playful innocence, spinning comedic gold from Guy’s naivete.  As if that weren’t enough, Free Guy asks an intriguing question: what if an NPC became self-aware and fell in love with a player?  Filled with winning performances and a playful sense for anarchy not seen since the Looney Tunes, Free Guy is fun writ large.  Highly recommended.

Free Guy was the most fun I’ve had at a movie theater in quite some time.  How much fun?  While watching it, I was already looking forward to watching it again.  That’s how much I enjoyed this movie.

Free Guy was originally scheduled for release in July 2020, but was pushed back several times due to the pandemic.  Watching it now, it feels like a visit from the Ghost of Blockbusters Past.  You know, way back before we had to deal with shutdowns, daily counts of COVID cases and deaths, virtual schooling, mask mandates, vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, virus deniers, etc.  A time when I could go to the theater and enjoy a big-budget movie for the sheer escapist enjoyment of it.

While I’ve seen many excellent films in theaters during the pandemic, the big-budget movies I’ve seen have been hit-or-miss.  I liked the Mobius-strip aesthetic of Tenet, and A Quiet Place 2 was one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.  Black Widow was a lackluster affair, though.  What a disappointment after such a long wait.  Even The Conjuring 3 felt tired.

Adding insult to injury was how some studios have released movies clearly made for the big screen only on streaming services.  And as someone who looks forward to going to the movies once a week, I feel cheated that I never had the option to see movies like Soul and The Tomorrow War in a theater.  I find it difficult to believe that a thirty or forty-five day exclusive theatrical window is financially prohibitive for Disney or Paramount, or would have impacted streaming subscriptions that much.

Fortunately (for me at least), Disney was contractually prohibited from releasing Free Guy on any of their streaming platforms.  (HBO gets the rights one year after theatrical release.)  I definitely appreciated being able to experience the film’s “big canvas” approach on the big screen.  My 65” Sony TV is nice, but will never be equivalent to a movie theater screen.

Back to the task at hand.  Free Guy clearly was made by people who appreciate the spectacle of the big screen movie experience.  A love for the excitement that only big moves can provide comes through in every scene.  I realize that the finished product rarely reflects the effort that went into making it, and I don’t think for a minute the set was like the Smurf Village, but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that making Free Guy was a fun experience for everyone involved.

I’ve been effusive in my praise for Free Guy without getting into specifics.  I honestly enjoyed everything in the movie: the acting, the dialog, the direction, the story, the special effects, you name it. I even liked the geeky, tentative Millennial romance hidden at the center of the story.  The movie does have a few missteps, which I’ll get to later, but they are minor in the larger view of the movie.  For me, watching Free Guy felt exactly like the main character’s favorite thing to do: enjoying a waffle cone of bubble gum ice cream with your best friend while walking along the city’s lakefront promenade.  (And shame on you if you turn your nose up at bubble gum ice cream!)

Free Guy begins and ends with Ryan Reynolds’ performance as Guy.  Guy is a non-player character (or NPC) in a multiplayer game called Free City.  I admittedly know next to nothing about video games these days, and the last video games I played were on the original Nintendo.  I know next to nothing about Fortnite, but Grand Theft Auto seems to be the inspiration for Free City.  While Guy goes about his day, players materialize out of thin air and proceed to drive around recklessly, rob the bank where Guy works as a teller, shoot people, and so on.  Sometimes Guy is killed by a player, sometimes not.  Regardless of how his day ends, he wakes up the next day, practically giddy to go through it all again.

Free Guy certainly has echoes of other “repeating the same day over and over” movies, like Groundhog’s Day, Palm Springs and Happy Death Day.  Unlike the protagonists in those other movies, Guy doesn’t feel that reliving the same day over and over again as a curse.  Quite the opposite, he looks forward to every day, from its sunshiney mornings, to the utterly delicious cup of coffee he gets at the corner cafe, to chatting with bank guard and BFF Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), to that cone of ice cream at the end of the day.  I couldn’t help feeling a bit wistful while watching the movie, realizing how much I loved going back to some of the habits and routines I had pre-pandemic.  How easy it was to complain about comfortable routines before they were ripped away from us.

Unlike Ralph in Wreck-it-Ralph, Guy isn’t aware that he’s living in a video game.  He simply goes about his life, happy as a clam, completely oblivious to the larger world around him.  (Allusions to The Truman Show are there.)  Unlike Truman, when Guy learns the truth about his reality, he doesn’t want to escape it.  Instead, he makes it his singular mission to do what he needs to do to see more of the person who’s stirred him from his daily routine: Molotov Girl.

As played by Jodie Comer, I can’t imagine a red-blooded male NPC who wouldn’t want to spend more time with Molotov Girl.  With her leather pants, multi-colored hairdo, Australian accent, metallic bustier barely contained within a pillowy while blouse, Molotov Girl is the stuff of a video game player’s dreams.  When Guy first sees Molotov Girl, he is immediately enamored with everything about her: the way she flips through the air, the way she blasts her enemies, even the song she hums (Fantasy by Mariah Carey).  She clearly stirs something within Guy’s digital…does an NPC have loins?  (I suspect this will be answered in Free Guy 2.)

Guy follows Molotov Girl to her secret lair and is amazed by her collection of fast cars and weapons.  (Free Guy continually gets laughs from things we readily accept in video games that  would be completely incongruous in the real world.)  Ms. Molotov is curious about Guy’s interest in her, but she still believes he’s just an NPC.  She brushes off his entreaties of friendship, telling him that she’ll let him help her with her mission only when he reaches level 100 status.  Guy accepts her challenge, and the next day, he takes the shades from another player to see the world as Molotov Gird and the other “shades” do.  Guy sees prizes floating all over the place, just like in Super Mario Brothers.  He touches a floating first-aid kit and all of his injuries are instantly healed.  Reaching for a supersized coin adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to his bank account.  Guy’s existence definitely became much more interesting inside his virtual world.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Molotov Girl is actually Millie, a disgruntled programmer trying to locate evidence that proves evil game company boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) is using code she developed within Free City.  Evidently, Antwan purchased the company that she and former partner Keys (Joe Keery) created only to put them out of business.  If Millie can prove Antwan is secretly using the code she and Keys wrote as the basis for Free City, they would be legally entitled to royalties.  Keys, however, doesn’t want to help Millie at all.  He’s under contract to work for Antwan until Free City 2 is released, then he can leave and do whatever he wants.  He resists Antwan’s overtures to join his programming staff, content to handle problem tickets until he is legally under no obligation to work for Antwan.

The big reveal midway through Free Guy is that Guy has evolved from an NPC to a sentient being.  The code Millie and Keys created incorporated artificial intelligence, and Guy’s growing awareness confirms his sentience.  Unfortunately for Guy, Antwan plans to shut down Free City when Free City 2 is released in 24 hours.  With help from Millie and Keys, Guy must find the evidence of Antwan’s deceit so that they can stop him from shutting Free City down.  If you’ve read up on Free Guy elsewhere, you’ll know that there is some corporate synergy in the final confrontation between Guy and anti-Guy.  I thought it was hilarious, and thought it was evidence that Disney has a sense of humor.

Free Guy would probably be a good movie without Ryan Reynolds, but it would not be a great one.  Reynolds is known for his passive-aggressive snarky delivery, which he put to good use in the Deadpool movies.  With Free Guy, Reynolds trades the snark for a child-like innocence and good nature.  Instead of ripping other characters apart with his sharp retorts, Reynolds makes himself the easy target, to great comedic effect.  Early on, his repartee with a barista about how much he loves her coffee got one one of the biggest laughs I’ve had in quite a while.

I appreciated how Reynolds kept Guy’s attitude positive throughout the movie.  Guy easily could have become cynical when he learns his world is fake.  Instead, he retains his curiosity and innate goodness.  Every time he learns more about his world and Molotov Gird/Millie, he wants to know more, and better yet, he wants to help.  Guy is innocent, funny, brave and altruistic, and one would have to be a complete churl to not be won over by the end of the movie.

Jodie Comer brings a wild, feisty spark to Free Guy.  I hadn’t seen her in anything prior to Free Guy, but now I understand why she’d been getting accolades.  Comer effectively plays two roles here: nerdy programmer Millie and action heroine Molotov Girl.  Her performances are what give the movie its emotional center.  Reynolds’ Guy may be the main character in the movie, and is incredibly funny, but Comer’s performance is what makes us care about the outcome.

I was enthralled by Free Guy’s visual inventiveness.  A common complaint about today’s action movies is that they use CGI for almost every action sequence.  Free Guy turns this notion on its head by making CGI excess the foundation of Free City’s reality.  Instead of feeling numbed by the CGI carnage, there’s a wacky anarchy to it, with random explosions and helicopters crashing into buildings and whatnot.  The only parallels I could think of for what goes on in Free City were Looney Tunes cartoons.  If Terry Gilliam ever made a big-budget action movie, it would probably look like Free Guy.

My complaints about Free Guy are few.  Taika Waititi overplays his performance as Antwan.  He goes for JoJo Rabbit-level buffoonery, when his What We Do in the Shadows dry wit would have better suited his character and the movie.  Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Mouser claims to be Keys’ best friend, but instantly turns into Antwan’s lap dog for a long stretch of the movie.  He does switch sides at the end, but I thought it was too little, too late.  Finally, the idea that a major online videogame company’s servers would all be housed on premises, in one building, with no redundancy, was just not believable to me.  Even if Antwan smashed every server he could find, there would be backup servers elsewhere in the country and around the world.
My review mentions several movies that likely served as inspiration for Free Guy: Groundhog’s Day, The Truman Show and Wreck-it-Ralph.  Yes, Free Guy is not 100% original, but few movies are.  The primary goal of movies like Free Guy is to entertain, which it certainly does.  The argument that Free Guy is somehow a lesser movie for having a couple of plot points in common with other great movies is a critique in search of an argument.  Those seeking 100% originality can queue up a documentary whenever they wish.  Free Guy was made to be popular with the public, and on that level, it unquestionably succeeds.

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