Review: Free Guy (2021)

Free Guy

Free Guy

Rating

Director

Shawn Levy

Screenplay

Matt Leiberman, Zak Penn

Length

1h 55m

Starring

Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Taika Waititi, Channing Tatum, Aaron Reed, Britne Oldford, Camille Kostek

MPAA Rating

PG-13

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Review

For generations X and younger, video games were an integral part of their childhoods. They grew up playing in various fictional settings. As technology has improved, so too have the worlds in which our lives have been lived. For some of the older generations, such pursuits aren’t as readily understandable as they would be for younger ones, which makes Free Guy an incredibly niche feature that won’t play well to anyone who’s never delved into the depths of modern video games.

The game in the film is called Free City, a type of Grand Theft Auto simulacrum with far better graphic output. Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy, a bank teller who goes about his daily life unaware that he is simply an Non-Player Character (NPC) in this video game and that the sunglass-wearing vigilantes that knock over his bank on an hourly basis are the player characters (PC) people in the real world are inhabiting. When he catches sight of the woman of his dreams, he tries to break free of the programming that has kept him blissfully unaware of his identity, stealing a pair of sunglasses and discovering the truth about his existence. Somewhat. The truth is, he still doesn’t realize he’s an NPC, rather he believes the he has become a hero like the others he can now emulate. As he attempts to become friendly with the PC Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer), her initial frustration helps push him towards becoming an iconic figure in the real world and setting up the course of events for the film.

In the real world, Millie (Comer) has been digging into the Free City world in an effort to locate proof that the man (Taika Waititi) who bought her and friend Keys’ (Joe Keery) proof of concept used that code as a foundation for the game he’s made a mint from. Guy’s part in this plot becomes pretty obvious early on, but it’s Reynolds’ trademark personality that keeps the audience engaged long after the viewer understands what’s going on. Unless you’ve delved into video games in general, understanding the sight gags and innuendos at play, or even picking up the exterior references that come on fast and obvious late in the film, a lot of what makes the film fun is going to be lost on you. Even Reynolds’ exuberant charm can’t make the whole affair more interesting to those who don’t understand.

You can’t really look at the films of director Shawn Levy and make a claim that he’s a great director. He makes entertaining films, many of which make a lot of money (the Night at the Museum films for example). Yet, his juvenile humor sometimes comes at the expense of cinematically literate content. He can create some lovely settings for his characters to play in, but he never finds a way to get deeper into the heart of identity that more skillful popular directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson can.

Having said all that, Free Guy is a surprisingly complex story. Co-written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, it’s one of the few modern films that understands what it’s like to appreciate and enjoy video games. It’s not just the fancy graphics or the in-depth settings, it’s the characters and how they interact with the world around them. This is one of the reasons why so many video game adaptations to the big screen have been dismal efforts. The depth and nuance of the characters and situations are flattened in the real world.

Further, the concept of idea theft and intellectual property is given a satisfyingly thorough exploration. When a studio forgets what it loved about creating games and focuses instead of bilking its players out of money, some of the magic and luster is lost. Games become tedious and job-like. Rather than playing something for fun, people play it to succeed at reaching the ever-extending goal-posts. What Millie and Keys find is not that they don’t love the creation of video game content, they just want to find the passion in the work they create and that passion is then enjoyed by those who consume it. As an indictment of cash-grab focused video game companies, the film works quite well. It evokes a sense of frustration and loss of joy associated with it.

Free Guy was completely deserving of its Best Visual Effects nomination as the rich tapestry of effects shift from photorealism into mind-bending excess with surprising ease and credibility. The soundscape is equally solid as are Reynolds and Comer’s performances. Many of the in-jokes are quite amusing if you catch them, but if you’ve never really gotten into the video game aesthetic, you will likely be utterly lost and much of the enjoyment will go out the window. That isn’t to say that non-video game fans can’t find their own identity here. Apart from missing video game-related humor, there are similarities between this film and others like The Truman Show and Reynolds’ own The Nines where the central character doesn’t realize that he’s a character and nothing more. When connected to those other sources, it can be easy to find something to cling onto, but it might not be enough, nor will it be easy and perhaps not as rewarding if you don’t have that base understanding of video game systems and aesthetics.

However, for fans of video games and those who’ve been around to see their evolution, identifying with the characters in the film becomes easy and finding yourself immersed in a video game world where the excitement of discovery is the most important part. In that way, Guy is every one of us. We are the NPCs in life who, for a few hours of our time, are treated like we matter and presented something as engaging and rewarding as one is expected to get in today’s fast-and-tumble world of unrelenting consumer disenchantment.

Review Written

September 20, 2022

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