Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Joe Keery
Cinematographer: George Richmond
Editor: Dean Zimmerman
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
“The Truman Show (1998), but for the Fortnite generation” could have been the studio pitch for Free Guy, a thoroughly charming, silly romp that only really makes its limitations apparent when it occasionally flirts with being something deeper.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is an NPC or non-player character in online videogame Free City, except he doesn’t know it yet. Every morning, he lives out a pre-programmed loop in which he must choose from a wardrobe of identical clothes, place the same coffee order and go to work at the local bank, where heists are so routine, the tellers have their defensive stances down pat. The easygoing Guy seems perfectly content but can’t shake the feeling that there has to be more to life. When he snags a pair of sunglasses that enable him to see his world as real-life gamers do — with missions, medikits and character stats — he teams up with Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) to make sense of it all. In the real world, she’s Millie Rusk, one of two programmers whose code was stolen to create Free City, and is now searching for evidence within the game.
The film zips through these initial plot points quickly, keeping the pace brisk and preventing fatigue from setting in by avoiding lingering on Guy’s Groundhog Day-style existence. The flipside is that these big revelations are devoid of emotional heft and accrue meaning only as the film progresses and you begin to care for these characters. By the time megalomaniac game developer Antwan (Taika Waititi) announces his plans to erase Guy and his universe in favour of a more violence-focused sequel, you’re heavily invested in seeing the AI, and his newly developed sense of agency, saved.
The fledgling romance between Guy and Molotov, all soft-focus, slow-motion and swelling music, forms the heart of the film. Its one standout action sequence features the two of them on a bike, Guy spinning it around in circles as Molotov guns down the game’s bad guys. Reynolds’ Guy is imbued with a sincerity bordering on naivete, in contrast to his foul-mouthed Deadpool, but shut your eyes and the intonations could belong to the same character, so patented is the actor’s schtick. Comer, on the other hand, is the film’s MVP, alluring as the cynical Molotov and equally effective as the frazzled Millie playing her.
The film’s in-game universe and its action sequences are inventive, if slightly bogged down by an insistence on underlining the obvious. A thrilling chase, during which Guy leaps off a scaffolding and tries to grab onto a wrecking ball, culminates in the groan-inducing needle drop…‘Wrecking Ball’. Guy’s pet goldfish is a clear metaphor for how he himself has spent a lifetime inside a fishbowl but the film unhelpfully spells this out. So immersive are the in-game portions, however, that cutaways to the real world often fall short. Scenes of players yelling terms like, “noob” and “God mode” do not compelling cinema make. Real-life streamers like Pokimane, Jacksepticeye and DanTDM make cameos to comment on Free City but offer little context or insight.
The film illustrates how NPCs like Guy only exist for real-world gamers to brutally attack in their quest to gain points and level up, and while there are throwaway lines about how this particular kind of game attracts players intent on living out their violent fantasies, too comfortable with using slurs, Free Guy doesn’t really examine toxic gaming culture. Instead, real-world players get an unearned redemptive arc in which Guy’s inherent goodness (and for some, hotness) prompts them to start treating in-game characters better.
As the rest of the NPCs evolve and revolt, the film’s themes of individualism and making it on one’s own terms become ironic given some of its ideas are cribbed from The Matrix and Ready Player One, a few striking images from Inception and battle moves from The Avengers and Star Wars. Antwan is a character designed solely to poke fun at corporate Disney with lines like “I know it sucks, but the IP recognition is rock hard”, which elicit chuckles thanks to Waititi’s brand of goofball humour, but he exists in a film that, by the end, pushes through its climactic battle on IP recognition alone. Still, Free Guy is surprisingly effective as an escapist watch, immersing you fully into a videogame universe even as its characters strive to break out of it.