September 17, 2021 | LIFE | By Annie Knight | Photo by Emmaline Hawley
“Free Guy,” from director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum” franchise) is the latest in a line of films taking place within or around the world of video games (“Jumanji franchise,” “Ready Player One,” “Wreck it Ralph”).
However, “Free Guy” attempts a fresh take on the trapped-in-a-video-game-premise. Sometimes it succeeds; sometimes it doesn’t. What it does do is wholeheartedly commit to its premise, making for an entertaining ride of a film.
“Free Guy” follows Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-player character (NPC) in the fictional video game, Free City. Unaware he is in a video game, Guy and his best friend, aptly named Buddy, spend their days living the same routine. Guy wakes up, cheerfully says hello to his goldfish, and then goes to work at the bank where he finds himself robbed by players in the game. The nonchalance with which Guy goes about his day while cars crash and guns fire around him offer some of the funniest moments of the film. Additionally, the goofy optimism with which Reynolds plays Guy is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film.
Out in the “real world,” Millie (Jodie Comer) enters the game daily, searching for evidence that the source code for Free City was stolen from her unreleased game, Life Itself. Her former partner in creating the game, Keys (Joe Keery, aka Steve Harrington), has since abandoned her cause. He now works for Soonami Games, the video game company responsible for releasing Free City, and home of the CEO, Antwan (Taika Waititi), accused of stealing the code.
When Guy sees Millie in Free City, convinced she is the girl of his dreams, he chases her down the street. Thinking he’s another player, Millie refuses to talk to Guy until he’s ‘leveled up.’ This prompts Guy to steal a pair of sunglasses from a player who tries to rob his bank. With the sunglasses, Guy begins to see his world as the players do. Things like mission icons, coins, and Medkits pop up around him — invisible to the NPCs without sunglasses. And so begins Guy’s deviation from his programming. In other words, he starts to become conscious.
“Free Guy” cinematographically styles itself like a video game, which is partly why it’s so fun. The camera swoops, tracks, and rotates with the characters as they fight other players and race in car chases. Essentially, it’s shot like a live action video game. The attention to detail in the production design is also amusing and sells its premise.
In particular, I loved the coffee options at Guy’s local coffee shop: strong coffee, good coffee, hot coffee, and really hot coffee. You might not even notice these options, which are subtly written on the board behind the register. This detail made Guy’s deviation from his normal hot-coffee-two-sugars to a cappuccino especially hilarious; obviously, the poor barista doesn’t know how to make a cappuccino. She short circuits over, a moment accompanied by a few classic horror film tropes I appreciated.
The film is at its best when it’s rooted in this video game world and genuinely having fun with its premise. However, the outside world plot with Millie, Keys, and Antwan felt unnecessary and crafted just to raise the film’s stakes. Additionally, it had some plot holes. For example, how do Millie and Keys know Antwan in the first place?
Antwan’s character as a whole felt flimsy and cartoonish to the point of being unfunny. This disappointed me greatly since he was played by a usual favorite of mine, Taika Waititi. However, performances by Comer and Reynolds grounded the film. It’s especially nice to see Comer deviate from the drama work she’s most well-known for in “Killing Eve” and try something new in the comedy realm.
Some thematic pieces of “Free Guy” also felt half-baked and unnecessary. A lot of time is spent emphasizing the breakthrough that is Guy, the first real example of AI as claimed by Millie and Keys. However, I did not find what constitutes consciousness to be the question “Free Guy” was trying to answer. Furthermore, it’s a topic projects like “Westworld” explore with more detail and nuance.
The film also goes to great lengths to showcase Guy’s goodness as he starts to play Free City; he chooses to stop other players from committing crimes to level up instead of participating in the crimes himself (which is the premise of the game.) This is a theme that Apple TV’s breakout show of the summer, “Ted Lasso,” does a lot better and again, it’s not what I thought the film was intending to focus on.
At its heart, “Free Guy” is a love story wrapped in a sci-fi premise. This love shows itself with Millie and Guy, Millie and Keys, and the community of NPC players as whole that come to find they can aspire to higher goals outside their predetermined loops as long as they work together. When the film abandons the complex questions it doesn’t have the time or space to answer —
and instead focuses on these relationships — is when it’s truly heartwarming and hilarious.
The premise of “Free Guy” has a lot of potential, though it’s not always actualized. It overused Gen-Z aesthetics. Too much of this movie was in the format of a YouTube screen showing gamers that had absolutely no impact on the story of the film. The overuse of Disney IP by 20th Century Studios made me almost want to barf. A lightsaber, Captain America’s Shield, and a Hulk fist all in the span of 5 minutes? That’s what we call overkill.
However, despite its flaws, “Free Guy” as a whole is genuinely funny and tries to do something new with a well-trodden film genre, even if it doesn’t always succeed. It can be predictable, but that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the ride. Overall, it’s a game I wouldn’t mind playing again.
“Free Guy” is playing in local Colorado Springs theaters. It is not streaming at this time.