Gamers invest countless hours in virtual worlds. After so much time within a game universe, they know the area better than their own hometowns. Over the decades, such games have evolved from shooters where combatants fought it out in simple geometric areas to immersive places where they can do almost anything that they want, from building businesses and exploring to racing cars and fishing off a dock. Such an expansive world serves as the playground for gamers in Free Guy. Combining elements of many movies and games, the film feels both familiar and completely original if that’s even possible anymore. Free Guy appeals to both hard-core enthusiasts and casual gamers alike with an inviting setting where you’ll want to plop your avatar, uh, yourself for a couple of hours.
Director Shawn Levy brought to life a famous museum in the Night at the Museum series, so he’s perfect for introducing audiences to Free City. Writer Matt Lieberman wrote the animated version of The Addams Family, while writer Zak Penn wrote a number of Marvel movies and notably adapted Ready Player One for the big screen. The filmmakers introduce us to Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a cheerful fellow who works as a bank teller in Free City, an online computer game that’s a combo of Grand Theft Auto, Fortnite and Second Life. Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in the game who follows the same routine every day. Wack job rich dude Antwan (Taika Waititi) stole code from a promising start-up game from programmers Keys (Joe Keery of Stranger Things) and Millie (Jodie Comer of Killing Eve) for Free City. Out for revenge, Millie sues Antwan’s company Soonami, while Keys chickens out and takes a low-level job there. Millie spends her days searching for proof within the game that their code is being used. When Guy falls for Millie’s in-game character and starts acting independently, a chain of events begins where Guy evolves into someone much more enhanced than his programming allows — a hero instead of the background character widely known as “Blue Shirt Guy.” Imagine a mixture of Groundhog Day, The Matrix, The Truman Show and Ready Player One, and you have some idea of what to expect.
I can’t imagine anyone better for Guy than Reynolds. Fans know how connected he is with technology and interests like comic books (leading to the Deadpool series) and gaming. Reynolds brings the right mix of charm and smarm to Guy as he levels up to become the hero. I don’t recall Comer’s work, so she took me completely by surprise as the female lead here. Indeed, I didn’t realize until the credits that she plays both Millie and her in-game character Molotov Girl, disguised with a wig and leather outfit perfect for fighting other players’ characters. Keery goes from a jerk in Stranger Things to a cool coder and hacker in Free Guy; I prefer the latter. Waititi made me laugh with every line; he has the best dialogue and mannerisms that come off as completely believable to someone like me who spent my time with creative types in the game industry. Lil Rel Howery plays security guard Buddy, and he’s Guy’s best friend. I would have liked more scenes with him, but with so many NPCs in Free City, Buddy’s the one who has the most impact on Guy’s life. Look for lots of cameos, including some that are merely vocal cameos, others from the gaming community and familiar character actor Matty Cardarople as a slacker gamer. One cameo has special meaning, and I’m not spoiling it because it’s in the trailer. Free Guy features the last cameo from Alex Trebek in a mock Jeopardy! game, and the audience gasped and sighed when he appeared.
A major part of the success of Free Guy comes from the game-related stuff feeling authentic. I have watched movies where the depictions of gaming or computer use don’t reflect how people play or even type on a keyboard. The filmmakers clearly watched and listened to gamers, and Penn certainly took advantage of his work on Ready Player One. As a way to distinguish players from NPCs, players wear sunglasses of various styles that allow them to see the gaming elements in the environment. When Guy puts on pair of glasses, his world view is changed forever. Text marks locations and missions as you would see in a game, and objects like medical kits and cash are visible for characters to take and use. Of course, NPCs don’t have the freedom of Guy and his friends to go off script, so the plot depends heavily on an explanation that happens later in the film. Free Guy gets it right, so I can’t see any but the pickiest of gamers having a problem with the movie. I look at it as more of a celebration of their activities and adventures online.
I doubt that there’s a scene in the movie that doesn’t use digital artistry in some way. Such computer graphics and visual effects experts form the backbone of Free Guy. All of the explosions and action seem over the top as you might truly see in gaming titles. They didn’t skimp on filling the screen with interesting elements at every moment. When Guy’s merely walking down the street, players speed by in vehicles or cause explosions in the background without Guy blinking an eye. Most of what you see within the Free City game looks like the real world because it is for Guy. When characters look at Free City through their screens, the graphics take on a smooth, less detailed look to emphasize the change in view. This approach shows the level of detail that the effects folks brought to the rest of the movie from simple scenes to a bonkers finale that could only be done with banks of modern computers.
It’s not often that film titles have double meanings, but to its credit and my delight, Free Guy pulls off three. In gamer parlance, a “free guy” is what you earn if you reach a certain score. Additionally, Guy is from Free City — a Free (City) guy — and an online effort to liberate or free Guy from his limitations within the game takes place. Millie loves the Mariah Carey song “Fantasy,” and its catchy base melody will run through your head after the film. I confess that I looked up the official video. I preferred the more detailed Ernest Cline novel to Ready Player One because many of the game references were dropped. Free Guy satisfied my inner gaming nerd with a captivating story that promotes the fun of gaming culture.