Synopsis – A bank teller discovers that he’s actually an NPC inside a brutal, open world video game.
My Take – As it has been for decades, this year’s summer season too, despite COVID-19 continuing to push several films to later dates, saw the release calendar dominated by sequels, spin offs, live action adaptions, reboots, and films tied to some sort of intellectual property. That’s probably a major reason why director Shawn Levy‘s latest has been on most people’s radar, simply because it looked and felt like an original blockbuster we had not seen in a long time.
Thankfully, due to its outside-the-box plot and a heavy dose of its ever charismatic leading man, Ryan Reynolds, the film delivers strongly by being enjoyable romp filled with excellent laughs, in-jokes, and a surprising amount of heart, making it one of my favorite films of the year.
Sure, while the film does share some structural similarities to The LEGO Film (2014), screenwriters Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman do deserve credit for a smart script that also works as an unexpectedly smart satire on toxic video game work culture. Add to that the terrific production design and the sensational special effects, this one is easily the best video game film ever made that isn’t even based on an actual game.
Without a doubt this is by far the most fun I’ve had all year.
The story follows Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a happy go lucky guy who wakes up every day, opens his closet full of identical outfits, and heads to his job at the bank, where every single day he hangs out with his security guard best friend called Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), tells people to have a great day, and is repeatedly robbed. Unknown to him, Guy is actually a NPC (Non Playable Character) inside a wildly successful open-world video game called Free City, played by millions around the globe.
While his background character’s limited programming keeps him happy and satisfied, Guy begins to deviate from the moment he lays his eyes on Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer). Suddenly, he wants to go where she goes, which means experimenting with a level of freedom heretofore unavailable to his routine background life.
Also unknown to him, in the real world, Molotov Girl is actually Millie Rusk, a video game designer who is determined to prove that Free City’s publisher, Antwan (Taika Waititi), stole her game’s code and integrated it into Free City. And with her former design partner, Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Kerry) now working for Antwan’s Soonami Games, Millie is determined to take back what rightfully belongs to her, even if it means to unintentionally break Guy out of his shell.
In most cases, blockbusters are usually about special effects, shootouts and car chases, but the winning crux of this film is that Guy who gains fame as the ‘Blue Shirt Guy’, only truly comes to dives into that territory when he begins to seek something more. Especially by flipping the script and showing how one can get ahead, not only in a game, but also in life by being a good guy, a refreshing message to see on screen.
At its best, the film succeeds both as action and comedy with its dedication to all things gaming, whether as a celebration or a satire. The film is an explosion of gags about the modern gaming industry. With its authentic and impressive augmented reality, the game-within-the-film, Free City, looks like a legitimate game, and it provides ample fodder for jokes and silly references.
The film also avoids being like Ready Player One (2018) 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 it 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.
But most surprisingly, with the threat of a permanent shutdown looming, the film succeeds at getting you to care about the fate of Free City’s citizens, despite them being rote and one-dimensional by design. If Guy can level up, why can’t Missy (Britne Oldford), the barista programmed to dole out only medium coffees with cream and sugar learn how to make a cappuccino? Why can’t Bombshell (Camille Kostek) leave behind rotten men and focus on her own desires?
We all know Ryan Reynolds is always going to be charming and funny, no matter what role he takes, but here he excels with his most intentionally dimwitted character yet. Reynolds nails the character of Guy, particularly in how he acts out the innocence and naivety of a freshly awoken, crudely coded video game character. His character’s innocence and constant optimism are often hilarious and make for some great jokes. It’s hard to imagine many other people playing the role of Guy much better than Reynolds.
In other roles, Jodie Comer is also quite likable and becomes more charming as we learn what her character is really searching for, Joe Keery puts in a great performance that is both funny and endearing, Lil Rel Howery is amusing enough, Utkarsh Ambudkar is interesting, and Taika Waititi shines as the main antagonist.
The film, which also features a number of very fun cameos by the likes of Channing Tatum, Hugh Jackman, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Evans and the late “Jeopardy” host Alex Trek. On the whole, ‘Free Guy’ is a simple refreshing popcorn blockbuster with great action, excellent humor and enough heart.
Directed – Shawn Levy
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 115 minutes