One of many films delayed by the 2020 pandemic, “Free Guy” has had an interesting ride. Originally conceived prior to Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, the videogame-inspired sci-fi comedy eventually continued production under Disney’s rebranded 20th Century Studios with director Shawn Levy and star actor Ryan Reynolds leading the project focusing on Reynolds as an NPC (non-playable character) who becomes sentient within the world of a popular videogame. The story sees the main character name Guy team up with a pair of programmers, played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, to stop the game’s money-hungry programmer, played by Taika Waititi, from deleting the game to replace it with a sequel. Fun, energetic, and taking full advantage of its lead as well as paying tribute to nerd and game culture in general, “Free Guy” is just the right mix of popcorn entertainment, fan service and substance creating a genuinely enjoyable mainstream experience.
While video game movies have rarely done well at the box office or critically “Free Guy” is in a category of films that are more INSPIRED by rather than based on a video game along the lines of movies like “Scott Pilgrim” and “Wreck-It Ralph”. These movies have proven to be much more enjoyable than those actually based on video game IPs embracing gamer culture and styles without being tied down to the story or structure of a specific game. “Free Guy” sees an NPC named Guy become sentient and thus he starts to interfere with the video game world he inhabits, called “Free City” which is sort of a mix of open world crime games like “Grand Theft Auto” and battle royal games like “Fortnight” with a few other genres mixed in for spice. The world of “Free City”, while confined to a very limited space, feels very alive and detailed while the NPC characters are purposefully designed to be more plain looking compared to the game’s players who are all wearing ridiculous outfits and sunglasses that allow them to see the reality of the game world. Ryan Reynolds playing a sentient NPC is alone a funny idea but Reynolds balances his usual off-the-cuff comedic talent with some real humanity in how Guy evolves from a one-note character going with the flow to something a lot more alive. Soon he begins to actually play the game by being a hero leveling up by becoming the antithesis of the violence in the world around him while also falling for Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) a programmer trying to take down the game’s maker for stealing her original build to create “Free City”.
When Guy and Molotov Girl, aka Millie, begin working together we start to get more detail into the real world conflict which involves a will-they-won’t-they relationship between Millie and her former partner Keys (Joe Keery) who programmed the original build for “Free City” but sold it to game designer Antwan (Taika Waititi) who is a scene-stealing villain more focused on the money than creating an inspired game product. While Antwan is a ridiculous oversimplified villain with typical motivations Waititi puts his own spin on the egomaniac making him a cliché but enjoyable baddy we’re meant to hate with all out being. All this, of course, is meant to be commentary on not only how video games are truly works of art that should be respected but also on how video game companies are more focused on cashing in on rehashed concepts and sequels than inspired products. It is pretty hypocritical of Disney to release a movie attacking companies for cashing in on existing ideas but ironically they’re doing it in one of their most original live-action films in some time…albeit one they absorbed from another studio. But I digress. I actually found the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Millie and Keys to be adorable and, even though it’s a double standard coming from Disney, I appreciated that a film was willing to openly attack the obsession the world has with rehashed idea in all forms of art, not just video games. In the end, Guy himself ends up being a symbol of how simplicity and a bit of inspiration can create the most relatable of products and artistic masterpieces so say what you want about the hypocrisy, this movie has some smart things to say about the importance of artistic integrity and I feel that message shines through loud and clear.
We all know though that Ryan Reynolds is truly the star of the show here as Guy and even he has a bit of subtext to share with the world. Guy decides to become the hero of a game designed to be vicious and violent. He levels up not by taking the path most feel is laid out for him but by doing good things thus inspiring others in the real world to appreciate the value of kind gestures. In addition to poking fun at how we as video game players often distastefully set aside our compassion and sense of guilt when killing NPCs, it also serves as a commentary on how our world is right now with so many people divided and stuck in a cloud of believing they have to follow one path or another when life is much more complex. We often forget the power of a simple favor or a kind gesture but Guy literally reminds us of that, leveling up and becoming the most beloved character in his game as a result and rising from literal obscurity into something more. But it’s not all subtext. This movie is also chock full of awesome moments of action and comedy gold taking advantage of IPs from both video game culture and Disney’s own library to create an absolutely jaw dropping finale that cashes in on many of the promises and some unexpected fan service this film’s concept alone had promised. While this movie as a whole is enjoyable, the last half hour had the theater I was in practically on their feet. I watched this movie alone and the final confrontation and all its references and callbacks had me clapping and cheering with myself. It was just that fun. It kind of undermines the originality of the film, but let’s face it a well timed reference can make or break a movie and I feel like the filmmakers chose the right moments to break out these references, waiting until the end of the movie when the film proper had already proven itself watchable before leaning on familiarity to drive home the exciting conclusion. Even if Disney didn’t incorporate their own IPs into the finale though, the amount of game references alone makes “Free Guy” a terrific tribute to video game fans everywhere….although it woulda been cool to get a Pikachu cameo or reference considering Reynolds played the character in one of the best video game movie adaptations ever but copyright and all that….you know. Missed opportunity is all I’m saying.
“Free Guy” is the latest film to prove that while movies based on video games don’t often work, movies ABOUT video games can be quite enjoyable. Ryan Reynolds gives us yet another fun hero to route for but honestly I liked the entire cast and while it does have its share of clichés and hypocritical themes that Disney themselves should probably learn from, I love that there’s a mainstream action-comedy-sci-fi picture that actually feels like it’s saying something while also going out of its way to entertain. It’s a great marriage of style and substance, pandering and originality, fan fair and effective storytelling. The finale alone made this movie one of my favorites mainstream releases so far this year. Everything about this movie felt clever, well timed and inspired, even the elements literally borrowed from the Disney catalogue. I wouldn’t call it perfect by any means, but I will say it’s one of the most genuinely fun experiences I’ve had in a theater since they reopened. There’s not much else I can say to justify calling it THE must-see mainstream movie of the summer so far.