‘Free Guy’ Review: Familiar, But Not Too Familiar

If you’ve seen a trailer for Free Guy (and given that the first one dropped before the pandemic, you probably have), then you may have dismissed it in the same way that I did. “This is just The LEGO Movie, but in a video game” my friends and I grumbled, seeing the image of a wide-eyed Ryan Reynolds cheerfully going about his ordinary life in an imaginary city where he’s an anonymous plaything. Now that I’ve seen the film, this impression has not totally left me — Free Guy is plenty familiar. But beyond some plot similarities, Free Guy also possesses The LEGO Movie’s most important quality, in that it’s a movie that looks like it shouldn’t remotely work, and it absolutely does. It’s a blast, in fact, and the most sincere feel-good comedy adventure of the year to date.

…But You Wouldn’t Want to Live Here

Guy (Reynolds) is a happy-go-lucky bank teller who lives in Free City, which unbeknownst to him is a Grand Theft Auto-style open world game. Every day he and his neighbors shrug off robberies, car chases, bombings, and the rest of the general mayhem around them like the everyday occurrence that it is, but never participate. That sort of behavior is reserved for the “sunglasses people,” the player characters who do whatever they want at the expense of the non-player characters who live their lives in relatively simple behavioral loops. Unlike Westworld, which also deconstructs the troubling ease with which gamers abuse and dehumanize NPCs, Free Guy doesn’t paint its world as a waking hell for its permanent residents, in fact most of them seem perfectly content with their routines until someone offers them something else.

This is where Guy comes in. Guy has a restlessness that his fellow NPCs lack — he wants to fall in love. Guy thinks he’s found the woman of his dreams in Millie (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), a badass player character who, upon meeting him, logically assumes that he’s also human. In an attempt to better understand this mystery woman, Guy swipes one of the player characters’ sunglasses, which allow him to see Free City the way they see it. Weapons, power-ups, player stats, all the parts of the game that have always been hidden from him become accessible. Guy wants to use these new tools to help Millie complete a difficult quest that is, at least for now, beyond his understanding, but he’s severely underleveled. Millie advises Guy (again, unaware that she’s talking to a fictional character) to come back after he’s gained enough experience and in-game currency.

Unlike the digital tourists who log on every day, Guy has no interest in running roughshod over the people of Free City, so he decides to gain XP by protecting his community from the players’ abuse, instead. Power doesn’t corrupt Guy — in fact, his first instinct is to share it with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Bad Trip). The rules aren’t really any different for Guy than for the other players — when he dies, he respawns and starts over just like everyone else — but the idea of exploiting this consequence-free world to act out cruel, destructive fantasies never occurs to him. This sense of care and optimism permeates the entire film. Guy’s heroic exploits garner attention and emulation not just from other NPCs, but from gamers and fans in the real world, who begin to rethink their own habits and preconceptions about how they play.

Naturally, Free Guy’s gentle critique of our cultural obsession with violence still allows for plenty of fun, cartoonish action sequences that employ Fortnite-style gimmicks. The setting instantly evokes the sense of fun that a light adventure game should, more akin to the wacky anarchic Toon Town from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than to the relatively sterile Oasis from Ready Player One. The action likewise has a cartoon quality, fast and colorful but relatively bloodless. There’s such a palpable sense of fun throughout the entire affair, I got the same kind of joy out of watching that I might have gotten from playing Free City myself. 

Free Guy

Carrie-Anne Moss Would Have Been More Age-Appropriate, Actually

While Guy is racking up points in Free City, the character who really drives the plot is Millie, who serves as a bridge between the stories in the digital and physical worlds. In reality, Millie is a game developer who sold a peaceful, self-evolving open world art project to major studio Soonami, and now spends her days attempting to prove that they built their hit Free City on the back of her code. Her former creative partner Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) still works at Soonami under the thumb of obnoxious tech bro CEO Antwan (the inescapable Taika Waititi). Antwan provides our story its ticking clock — in a few days, he’ll shut down Free City in favor of its sequel, putting a stop to Millie’s search and annihilating Guy and his entire world in one keystroke. 

Comer is terrific in what is essentially a dual role, no stretch for the actor behind master of disguise Villanelle on Killing Eve. Guy is the textual superhero of the film, but Comer is the one giving the classical superhero performance, cold and confident while in her alter ego of MolotovGirl and more plain and vulnerable in the physical world. As Millie’s arc progresses, the two personas meet somewhere in the middle. While she spends much of her time in the digital world essentially playing Wyldstyle to Reynolds’ Emmitt, Comer rises to the challenge when the story calls for genuine pathos in the third act. Comer can run circles around Reynolds in the acting department, but she also knows what movie she’s in and the skill gap only becomes apparent in their most emotional scene together. 

It’s apparent that the storytellers behind Free Guy have put some thought and effort into the gender politics of their story, though I’m not properly qualified to judge the results. There’s definitely a whiff of Trinity Syndrome here, as Millie begins the story with all of the combat prowess that Guy will have to gain in order to become the hero of the story, and her skill at violence is plenty fetishized. On the other hand, Millie also has her own story with her own goals, and she and Guy are able to help each other by virtue of which world they’re native to. Guy approaches problems in Free City differently because he lives there and has a different relationship to its residents, while only Millie can confront the villainous Antwan because she understands the game as a piece of software and has a physical presence in our world. As for the romance, I get the sense that the storytellers have made a genuine attempt to model good behavior here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not they’ve succeeded, but in the era of the scared-sexless action blockbuster, I’m grateful just to see someone try. 

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Free Guy

Gamers Rise Up

Free Guy is refreshing for the way it portrays the video game industry as the ubiquitous cultural presence that it is, rather than the exclusive domain of embarrassing nerds. Video games are now a bigger business than the movies, and filmmakers can expect their audience to have a basic understanding of games and how they work on screen and behind the scenes. The livestreaming ecosystem plays an important role in this story, and while cameos by celebrity Twitch streamers feel a little pandering (and no doubt won the movie some promo time on popular channels), it’s not really any different from hiring Wolf Blitzer or Craig Kilbourne to record a quick cutaway. 

The film also avoids the obnoxiousness of Ready Player One by letting Free City be its own game with only a few cute nods or references to other intellectual properties for almost the entire runtime. When Free Guy finally does veer into doing mask-off Brand Synergy during the final battle, importing props from a few Disney-owned franchises, it does so with literal fanfare, and it feels completely out of place. It’s not that items and costumes from comics and movies wouldn’t be a part of the Free City game (in fact, the two highlighted Disney-branded power-ups have both been available in Fortnite), it’s that Free Guy feels totally comfortable in its own skin as a video game pastiche up to this point. The idea that this movie about video games should try to borrow cultural cache from other movies feels like the studio flexing its muscles, as if to say “See, gamers? Movies are still more important.” Are they, though?

Reaching for a cheap pop of recognition also feels contrary to the film’s most prominent theme, which is the value of trying new things rather than sticking to a reliable routine. Millie and Keys’ indie game is shelved because Soonami’s metrics and focus groups determine that it’s not worth the risk when they can put their resources into yet another shooter or franchise sequel. One of the messages of the film is that people actually want new experiences, or at least that it’s worth trying something fresh even if it’s not worth as much money. If the familiar is death, why does the Avengers theme play during the climax of this movie?

Director and co-writer Shawn Levy has said that Antwan is based in part on his experience with a movie studio executive who couldn’t fathom why he would want to make a movie that’s not directly based on an established property. This is particularly telling of the state of Hollywood, because Free Guy feels like an anomaly despite not really being that original of an idea. You could easily do a classic elevator pitch for this movie using only hit movies from the past decade. “It’s The LEGO Movie meets Ready Player One starring Deadpool” is practically a free throw. And yet, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find Free Guy refreshing for “simply” being a high-concept action-comedy with no clear franchise ambitions. We just don’t get a lot of these anymore, and that makes me root for it to make its money back — just not enough for 20th/Disney to demand a sequel.

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