This should not have worked.
Much like the title character, Free Guy feels like a happy little miracle sprung from impossible circumstances. The last gasp of a dying studio, a film that looked to all the world like an uninspired off-season throwaway, and it turned out to be a bona fide bolt of lightning in a bottle.
So what have we got here and what does it do right? Buckle up, folks, we’ve got a lot to get through.
The premise is centered around Free City, the eponymous setting of a massively popular MMORPG. Its denizens are divided into two classes: Those with sunglasses, and those without.
The people with sunglasses are players, free to drop in and rob banks, shoot people, drive cars and tanks and motorcycles, and generally wreak all sorts of flashy and destructive mayhem. Those without sunglasses are NPCs, brainless placeholders who spout the same scripted lines and follow the same path every day, providing the players with missions and/or cannon fodder.
Guy (played by producer Ryan Reynolds) is an NPC who works at the bank, so he’s used to getting held at gunpoint on a daily basis. To make a very, very long story short, Guy steals a pair of sunglasses from a player, granting him access to the HUD and letting him see Free City as the players do. What’s more, Guy is now capable of leveling up as the players do, through combat and money and completing missions and so on.
The kicker is that while the players typically level up by killing and stealing and completing various missions (which usually means more murder and theft), Guy decides that he’s going to be a hero, helping people and stopping crimes. Funny enough, this endears Guy to most players, turning “Blue Shirt Guy” into an overnight worldwide viral sensation. Though of course the mystique helps, because nobody knows who or what Blue Shirt Guy really is.
How are the programmers responding to all of this? Well, for one thing, nobody is averse to all the good press and new users that Blue Shirt Guy is bringing in. And yes, the programmers are irked that a player has somehow hacked the system to the point where they’re indistinguishable from an NPC. However, Soonami Studios is already looking ahead to “Free City 2”, which is set to launch in just a few days. Good news: They’re not going to spend any time or manpower fixing a problem on software that will be obsolete within a week anyway.
Bad news: When “Free City 2” launches, the original game’s servers will be retired. Meaning that Guy and his city and everything in it will be deleted. But wait, there’s more!
Enter Millie and “Keys”, respectively played by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery. They’re a pair of young video game programmers whose work was purchased and summarily buried by Soonami. Keys went on to work for Soonami as a low-level QA grunt. Millie went on to file a lawsuit against Soonami, claiming that her and Keys’ work was illegally used without permission as the backbone of “Free City”. To gather evidence for the lawsuit, she’s been scouring Free City under a heavily encrypted user profile.
Guy crosses paths with Millie aka MolotovGirl and we’re off to the races.
Obviously, the basic premise of “everyman realizes that his entire world is a lie put on for someone else’s benefit” bears more than a passing resemblance to The Truman Show. And the device of magic sunglasses that reveal the true world was ripped right from They Live. Hell, we even get a scene that directly mimics an iconic They Live scene, only a million times tamer and lamer. But the comparison I really want to focus on here is with Wreck-It-Ralph, as both films are about a self-aware video game character who wants to buck the system and find out who he really is. But literally everywhere Wreck-It-Ralph falls short, this one succeeds with flying colors.
First of all, we don’t suddenly make a detour and start making jokes about candy or some unrelated shit. We do get some pop culture references, video game in-jokes, and some laugh-out-loud cameo appearances (including a bittersweet posthumous appearance from Alex Trebek), but these are strategically used as a condiment and not an entree. The filmmakers are clearly tech-literate, and they keep the film squarely focused on authentic — yet slightly tweaked for comedic effect — portrayals of the online gaming culture.
That said, I was irked by the outdated stereotypes and jokes about adult overgrown children living with their parents. Yes, I appreciate all the effort put into making those jokes funny, and it helps that the film was clearly made by people who are likely gamers themselves. Even so, the whole film is a love letter to the little guy, built around the notion that even the least of us has the power to determine our lives and maybe even change the world. To make a film with that kind of message while making jokes that shit on the little guy feels more than a little hypocritical.
Then again, it’s only really a huge problem in one scene, and the events of the film only matter because so many millions of nameless people are watching Blue Shirt Guy. So it’s not a dealbreaker. I might also add that given all the recent news that’s made the video game industry notorious for its terrible treatment of workers, using the video game industry to explore this particular theme seems uncannily apropos. We’ll come back to that.
Getting back to the Wreck-It-Ralph comparison, my big problem with that whole franchise came back around to the notion of autonomous AI. For a video game character to think and act independently, to change and create content with no human input, would be a huge, huge fucking deal, raising all sorts of philosophical and technological implications that Disney Animation Studios never even hinted at.
But this movie goes there. These filmmakers practically built their whole damn movie around the real-world and in-game implications of sentient AI sprouting up in an MMO.
To say that this changes everything would be an understatement. This opens up a massive ontological discussion, ultimately coming to the Cartesian conclusion of “I think, therefore I am,” feeding into the themes of focusing on what feels real in the moment and being good to each other and so on. Seriously, this is a massive rabbit hole the filmmakers dove into, and they deserve no end of praise for navigating it so skillfully without dragging down what’s ultimately a breezy action comedy.
Moreover, it raises the stakes of the movie to an astronomical degree, giving the real-world audience and characters a reason to care about what happens to this fluke technological breakthrough. Which brings me to the romance angle, as Guy and Millie find themselves unlikely love interests. You might be wondering how any kind of relationship would work out between the AI construct and the real-world person. The better question would be whether Guy’s romantic attraction is genuine, or programmed in by somebody else. It’s a fascinating question, and the resolution of this whole romance arc is poignantly (albeit predictably) executed.
Speaking of which, of course the film has a message about how video games are all well and good, but we still have to make a life in the real world and seize every moment we have. And this message is delivered in a cogent way without ever condescending to the audience, emphasizing the need for real-world interaction without putting down video games in any way. Brilliantly done.
It would be too easy to brush off Reynolds’ performance here as yet another variation of Deadpool. And there is indeed a fair bit of overlap here, especially in those stretches where Guy suffers all sorts of comically gruesome injuries. (Nothing bloody, more like getting blown up and thrown around.) Yet there’s so much more depth to this role, and it demands a level of vulnerability that Deadpool simply wasn’t built for. It’s a heavily dynamic role and Reynolds plays it beautifully.
The other highlight is Jodie Comer, debatably playing the true protagonist of the movie. She’s basically playing two characters here — one in the real world and one in the game — all while cycling through so many different costumes and umpteen different accents. It also helps that Millie is a genuinely strong and proactive female lead. Even in those moments when she has to take a backseat and let Guy take the lead, the filmmakers find ways to sideline her without ever weakening her or undermining her. Millie is a fantastic character, and Comer turns in a starmaking performance.
Then we have Taika Waititi as Antwone, head of Soonami Studios. Waititi hams it up as an over-the-top douchebag, leaning hard and heavy into the archetype of the greedy narcissistic asshole. But it works because in a strange way, his outrageously misanthropic nature mirrors that of “Free City” itself. Moreover, the film never lets us forget that a huge reason why Antwone is such an intolerable douchebag is because he’s paranoid and domineering enough that nothing ever gets past him. He’s not much for subtlety, but he’s still intelligent, ruthless, wealthy, and powerful enough to pose a legitimate threat in both the real world and the video game world.
Even better, it helps immensely that Antwone is merely a cartoonish representation for legitimate grievances that have steadily poisoned the video games industry for years. Case in point: The upcoming “Free City 2” is said to be a buggy, unfinished, unplayable mess getting rushed out the door to collect the money of gullible players before anyone realizes they’ve been had, patching up all the glitches post-release. This happens all the goddamn time. Major kudos are due to Waititi for playing a villain who is both legitimately funny and seriously threatening.
(Side note: I just realized that this is exactly what Jim Carrey was going for with Dr. Robotnik, but Waititi makes it actually work.)
Elsewhere, we’ve got Lil Rey Howery as Buddy, the NPC bank security guard who’s Guy’s best friend. At this point, I think it’s worth recognizing the sheer quality and quantity of Howery’s work to date — by this point, he’s a bona fide character actor. I don’t know if he’ll ever be leading man material, but he’s undeniably one hell of a supporting player.
Alas, Joe Keery and Utkarsh Ambudkar don’t fare nearly as well. Keery fares better because he’s given more to do and he has a bigger impact on the plot, but he’s nowhere near a strong enough actor to hold his own against Comer and they both get blown off the screen by Waititi. More to the point, both of them are tasked with playing Soonami employees who eventually develop to the point where they stand up to their employer. And in both cases, the face-turn doesn’t land as hard as it should. Especially in Ambudkar’s case, the face-turn lands with all the impact of a soft fart. Last but not least, the ending only really works if we believe that these two are close best friends, and I never bought into that for a second.
On the subject of nitpicks, there were some notable holes in the logic and rules of “Free City”. By far the biggest example concerns Guy’s sunglasses — every time he wakes up or respawns, does he have to steal another pair of sunglasses or does he automatically respawn with the same pair? Either way, how does that work? It’s left unclear. I could also point to one particular scene in which Guy inexplicably crashes in on a motorcycle out of goddamn nowhere. Hell if I knew where he came from or how he got there.
Then again, part of the beauty of the premise is that literally anything goes. Within the limits of Free City, the rules of physics don’t apply and anything imagined is possible. There’s endless creative potential here, and I applaud the filmmakers for stepping up accordingly. And as an added bonus, the filmmakers can (and do) cut corners on the CGI, and it’s perfectly okay because we’re told up front that it’s all fake anyway.
I realize this isn’t saying much, but Free Guy is easily the best work that Shawn Levy has ever put on record. It’s funny, it’s intelligent, it’s exciting, it’s inventive, it’s compelling, it’s heartfelt, and it comes from a place of genuine love and knowledge of the modern video game industry. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but this one gets a full recommendation. Don’t miss out.