Review by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) has a problem. It’s not that he wears the same blue shirt every day, has the same coffee from the same coffee shop, or says “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day!” to everyone he meets. It’s not even that the cars on the street change colors randomly, that tanks patrol the city, that buildings routinely explode, or that the bank he works in gets robbed several times a day.
No, Guy’s problem is that he wants to meet his ideal woman. He knows she’s out there somewhere – and then one day, there she is, the kick-ass Molotov Girl. But she’s one of the “sunglasses people,” and the “sunglasses people” and people like Guy don’t mix. Thinking he needs to become like her to get her attention, Guy grabs some sunglasses from one of the bank robbers, and suddenly sees what has been hidden from him. He lives inside a video game.
The “sunglasses people” are actually the avatars for players in a violent multiplayer video game, and Guy is an NPC, a non-player character that goes about his pre-programmed business in the background. Molotov Girl is the avatar for Millie (Jodie Comer), a game designer who with her partner, Keys (Joe Keery), built a peaceful world-building game that they sold to a giant video game company headed by the evil Antwan (played with over-the-top glee by Taika Waititi). Millie suspects Antwan used their code to make the violent game Guy inhabits, Free City, and uses her avatar to search for the proof that is hidden inside the game. Guy is compelled to help, breaking free of his programming, and creating havoc within the game.
Reynolds tones down the snark and adopts a wide-eyed innocence that makes Guy likeable even for Reynolds-haters. Comer, who is so great in Killing Eve, is terrific as both Molotov Girl and Millie, and Lil Rel Howery is a stand-out as Guy’s best buddy, Buddy. Real gamers make cameos to add verisimilitude, and there are more voice cameos from movie stars.
The game world is bright and colorful, with authentic-looking heads-up displays and dazzling special effects. The rapid pacing keeps you from noticing any plot holes – can an avatar really find proof of hidden code from inside a game? I don’t know, but I didn’t have time to wonder about it. The movie cleverly uses songs to comment on the action, like the moment Guy jumps from a building to a wrecking ball and the first few strains of “Wrecking Ball” sound, only to be cut off when he misses it.
There are passing nods to gaming issues such as gun violence and the objectification of women (when Guy tells a character called Bombshell that she can do better than the gangster she’s with, she replies that maybe she doesn’t need any man; she can get a career). And realizing that even background characters can have a complete life makes you wonder about all the extras you see in games, movies, and TV shows. Is it really okay to blow them away as long as the main character is spared? (I always wonder about the number of people who are killed in the car crashes that superheroes leave behind.) Then there is the notion that a peaceful, cooperative game can be more popular than a violent shooter game.
Don’t worry that the movie is too serious though; Free Guy is genuinely funny. But here’s the secret of its appeal, it’s a sweet rom-com masquerading as an action comedy, so there’s something for everyone. Free Guy borrows from other movies like Tron, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ready Player One, Groundhog Day, and The Truman Show, as well as several giant Disney-owned franchises, but while it may not be wholly original, it is perfect late-summer fare, when you’re just looking for something light and funny to help you beat the heat.