When I put Free Guy on my calendar, I expected a modern slapstick comedy with sentimental underpinnings. I got that- but I also felt seen as a gamer. A movie hasn’t made me feel quite like this in a long, long time.
I’m just going to say it. Free Guy is what Ready Player One was trying to be and didn’t quite succeed. I had a decent time watching RPO, but there was a manic sort of sense that it was trying too hard. I didn’t feel like that with Free Guy. Even when it leaned into tropes, it did so with love and humor.
For the uninitiated, Free Guy is a movie about an NPC in a violent open-world computer game called Free City. One day, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) gets shaken out of his programmed loop by the appearance of a Player calling herself MolotovGirl. Molotov- AKA Millie (Jodie Comer)- pays him very little attention until he snatches a pair of Player sunglasses and can access the “heads-up” display available to all Players. Assuming he’s a Player wearing NPC skin, she casually suggests he go level up for a while before continuing on her mysterious mission.
Things sort of snowball from there. The outside world assumes “Blue Shirt Guy” is a hacker who has somehow gotten hold of an NPC skin and is blowing everyone’s minds by doing good things to level. That’s near-unheard of in the lawless landscape of Free City, where Players enjoy casually robbing banks or blowing things up.
Here’s the thing, though: in the real world of gamers, there are tons of players who love that kind of game. Sure, mainstream gaming wants us to believe gamers are sweaty underemployed people living in our mothers’ basements (and Free Guy does make a joke about that) who just like to blow things up. And sometimes, blowing things up in a game is a good stress reliever.
However, the success of world-building and exploration-based games shows us that players want more. We want to create and nurture and experience wonder. Sure, we might create a dark storyline with our Sims to laugh about with our friends, but we also have that one family we’ve been carefully shepherding to prosperity over ten generations.
That’s the part of me Free Guys speaks to, and the part the creators of the code underpinning Free City were trying to speak to. They intended their creation to power a world of exploration and wonder. At some point, Millie and Keys (played by Joe Keery) sold their game to a deliciously clueless yet greedy magnate played by Taika Waititi. Antoine promptly buries that hopeful creation and builds Free City on its grave. He even claims he isn’t using their code in order to deny them the royalties they’re due.
Hmm, no parallels to that in the real world at all. Total surprise.
I don’t want to spend this review retelling the plot, though. I want to call out several excellent choices by the creative team that make this movie shine.
First, the cameos. There are SO MANY CAMEOS, though they’re not heavy-handed. They’re worked into small yet pivotal roles, the kind of thing that gives the audience a wink without derailing the plot. For example:
- The Rock plays an entirely unnamed bank robber.
- Hugh Jackman is a creepy figure in an alley.
- Tina Fey drops some killer lines while vacuuming behind one of the key gamers.
- Four seconds of Chris Evans. Not saying more.
That’s not even all of them- there are plenty of little treasures scattered around to make you laugh. I don’t know that I can call Channing Tatum’s role a cameo, though. It’s more a small, “just for kicks” part that he has an absolutely wonderful time playing. I love watching movies that actors loved making.
I could go on for hours about the art direction (clean and bright and quirky) and the scoring (a well-curated mix of tunes that I’ll probably download later). The costume design is also on point. Every NPC is different but still reads distinctly “normal” while the Players are wildly different flavors of Extra. I’m a sucker for a film where every department works this seamlessly to create a consistent, engaging vision.
Something else I want to highlight is how the script works in just enough well-known tropes to be funny (“don’t tell jokes you hear in Free City”) without alienating gamers. The movie also features a pretty good diversity of Players when the POV flips to the real world. We get that “mom’s basement” Player, but we also get a young teen playing while her younger sister provides color commentary. Gaming is for everyone, and I like that we see that.
Another smart choice- or series of choices- is the casting. Of course, Reynolds is the obvious choice for Guy. The list of actors who can switch between madcap and endearing several times in the same scene is short. Guy about tears my heart out when he’s struggling to accept the news about being an AI. “You’re real and I’m, what? I’m fake?” I’m tearing up remembering it.
Taika Waititi, well, he’s just brilliant and fun to hate here. If there’s something he can’t do, I’ll be surprised.
I was surprised by the chemistry Comer and Keery manage to spark when they were at odds most of the film. They don’t have much romantic spark in the beginning, so for them to kindle it at the end is impressive. The long stare where Millie just beams her feelings across the street, the way Keys is confused and a little irritated before he gets it and his whole being lights up- just masterful. It could have felt forced and awkward, and it was a little rushed. But it works, mainly because Comer and Keery make it work.
Moving outward from the main cast, I’m a huge fan of the actors playing side characters. Utkarsh Ambudkar does a great job with Soonami tech Mouser. I was a little frustrated by him at points, but after reflection, I realized that every stupid thing he does is fully in character, and even reasonable, to someone who doesn’t fully understand that Guy is a sentient AI who needs to be protected. We need that reality check to remind us, “Hey, Guy is real to us and to Keys and Millie, but everyone else thinks he’s just a bit of code.” Otherwise, every Player seems heartless.
Lil Rel Howery as Buddy is my absolute favorite side NPC. Knowing that these characters are AI just emerging into sentience, Buddy’s hesitance to actually make that jump speaks to me. He’s not sure what it means to become a “sunglass person” but he knows it isn’t something he can come back from. From the advice he gives about moments being real, I get the idea he doesn’t see his existence as lesser to begin with.
Eventually, Buddy finds his way to autonomy without the sunglasses which were so transformative for Guy. That’s another powerful statement- that his close relationship with Guy was his motivation to break from his pattern.
Notice that I said “close relationship” without really defining it as platonic or romantic. As Keys points out, every one of these AI is roughly four years old. They’ve only recently become self-aware, too. Even though they can be unexpectedly deep, it reads more because they don’t have the baggage that keeps people from being emotionally vulnerable
Reynolds and Howery show that innocence in their interactions with each other. They share the all-consuming connection that we all remember from our childhood best friends. I like that the producers kept their relationship so pure and close. I’m also pretty impressed that two grown men were able to display that uncomplicated loving relationship.
There’s some talk online about Buddy being written as a queer character, with Guy and Buddy intended to wind up as a couple down the road. Buddy’s fascination with Dude is seen as one clue. Guy missing his friend to distraction is another. For my part, I’m torn between “I like stories with representation” and “these AI are pretty young and I’m a little uncomfortable trying to pin them into a corner”.
Final verdict here: Free Guy captures gaming, both the good and the bad parts, as it is and as it could be. It’s not preachy, and it feels fun and fresh even when it’s walking over much-covered ground. Take a friend so you can quote lines to each other later.
And there’s good news! We’re (probably) going to get to see more of Free Guy. Two days after the premiere Ryan Reynolds has already tweeted about a sequel:
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) August 14, 2021
I’m not sure what kinds of shenanigans Guy and Co will get up to in a sequel, but I’m excited to find out!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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