You know what they say… that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, I suppose one shouldn’t judge a movie by its trailer either, as the first time I saw FREE GUY trailer I scoffed. I just didn’t care for another movie based on a video game. Oddly enough, FREE GUY is about a video game, but it’s actually not based on an actual video game or even any pre-existing IP. Director Shawn Levy and star Ryan Reynolds concocted the idea, perhaps as a challenge to themselves considering how tough it is to take a brand new concept and make it into a film, as evident in the plethora of franchises, remakes, sequels, etc. in Hollywood.
So the movie is set in an open world video game called Free City where Reynolds’ character Guy (the title role, natch!)
lives exists as a bank teller, chirpily reporting to work every morning with his bank security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). The opening sequence with the character’s day-to-day routine where he wears the same clothes, orders the same coffee, etc. reminds me a bit of The LEGO Movie. Initially Guy seems pretty happy with how things are, casually reliving the same bank robbery scenario where the shades-wearing criminals look very much like the players within Grand Theft Auto that my brothers used to play.
But then one day he spots a bad-ass Molotov Girl in faux-leather pants singing Mariah Carey‘s Fantasy and he is immediately smitten out of his wits, rom-com style. Despite Buddy’s plea that he can’t simply talk to sunglasses-wearing heroes, Guy breaks protocol and follows her. The moment Guy puts on her sunglasses, voila! He suddenly becomes aware he’s been in a video game all this life, more specifically he’s an NPC (non-player character for those non-gamers) that isn’t controlled by a human player and exist simply to simply populate a game’s world.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we meet Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), a pair of brilliant young game programmers who could’ve been successful in their own right had they not been cheated by a wealthy, powerful game publisher Antoine (Taika Waititi). While Millie can’t take this injustice lying down, Keys just sort of accepts things as it is and still willing to work for Antoine, creating a rift in their friendship. Levy’s direction, based on a script written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, manages to ground the film by interweaving this real-world, relatable predicaments that Millie and Keys find themselves in with the more absurd elements in Guy’s world. I have to admit that without these two characters, I might not be as invested in the story overall.
Reynolds is definitely in his element here, given his knack for playing a whimsical, likable hero who’s never above poking fun at himself. He’s found an unlikely-yet-effective match in Comer who’s been um, killing it in Killing Eve series. Her incredible accent work is put to good use here as well in the dual role, and she’s equally believable as a nerdy programmer or a bad-ass assassin. She has a playful rapport with Reynolds and seems to have a lot of fun with the role. I love the scene where they were in the Stash House where there were all these fancy cars and all kinds of fancy gadgets. The action is deliberately cartoonish (I mean they are inside a video game after all) but it was a lot of fun. It’s also the moment Molotov Girl realizes that Guy isn’t really a real life human.
In the supporting role, it’s fun watching Taika be the baddie. The New Zealander is one of those quadruple-threat talents where he’s at home in front AND behind the camera. He relishes the role of a greedy, power-hungry tech exec who doesn’t care where his wealth comes from so long as he can have it all. Given his anti-colonialism stand (that he even inserted into a plot in Thor Ragnarok), Antoine couldn’t be more opposite of Taika in real life. I’ve only seen Joe Keery in Stranger Things season 1, I think he fits the role perfectly here as a cute-but-nerdy game designer. Utkarsh Ambudkar also have some memorable scenes as Keys’ co-worker. There’s even an Alex Trebek cameo in Jeopardy, which made me sad as it’s his last on-screen appearance. There are other fun cameos too but I’ll let you discover them as you watch the movie.
Prolific director/producer Shawn Levy has tackled comedies in digital age environment before with The Internship where Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson interned at Google. I haven’t seen that one but this one is a high-tech comedy in steroids! Story-wise it’s kind of a mash-up between The Truman Show and Wreck-It-Ralph, oh and apparently Ready Player One, which I haven’t seen as the first 10 minutes made me dizzy. I like that the writers also incorporate scenes of actual gamers. The way they react to Guy verging off from his NPC programming while playing the game, and how most of those too-old-to-still-be-living-at-home guys exasperate their moms, make for some of the funniest bits.
Overall Free Guy exceeded my expectations. Who knew a comedy about video games can also be a charming rom-com? When Millie falls for Guy’s charm, Comer made the whole thing so sweet and endearing. The scene where Millie turns to mush, much to the Keys’ bafflement is hilarious! Now, it’s not a Ryan Reynolds movie without the absurd, over-the-top action scene. The bombastic scene between Guy and a ginormous, super-jacked version of himself called Dude is downright silly and ridiculous, but at that point I had been enjoying the movie so much I just rolled with it. The quieter moments between Guy and Millie are definitely my favorite parts.
Well, Reynolds no doubt has another potential comedic franchise under his belt here besides his raunchy, R-rated Deadpool. Unlike the irreverent, foul-mouthed character, Guy’s earnest and aw-shucks-innocent persona is actually quite refreshing. Along with Ted Lasso, I guess ‘nice-ness’ is all the rage post-pandemic and I’m totally cool with that. If you’re looking for the quintessential Summer crowd-pleaser to watch in the cinema, I highly recommend this one. I wouldn’t mind watching this again once it’s out on streaming.