This movie has been on Sean’s most-anticipated list since 2019 and we’ve been waiting impatiently for quite some time. Unfortunately, this film had a theatrical-only release this summer, which excludes the likes of myself, an immuno-suppressed, likely-to-die-of-COVID person who’s obsessed with movies but not quite willing to die for them. And also her husband, who Officially Cares Whether I Live Or Die. I knew he liked me! I made him a badge and everything, but he’s a little embarrassed to wear it. Anyway, I’ve been stalking the movie rental sites like a shark, ready to pounce the moment it dropped. Blood in the water, baby! So colour me surprised when I found it first on Disney Plus – for free. Hello!
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) lives a repetitive life: wake up, feed goldfish, don blue shirt, work as bank teller, get robbed, repeat. He’s surprisingly cheerful about it, considering all the laying on the floor, fearing for your life he does on a daily basis, but it’s all he knows, so he’s pretty content. Until one day he isn’t. Guy discovers he’s an NPC, a non-playing character, in an open-world video game, one of those guys that’s just walking around so that the real characters, navigated by human gamers, can feel their world is populated, or perhaps even interact with them, briefly. And then there’s this woman, Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer), who catches her eye; as an NPC he’s all but invisible to her but once he wears the sunglasses that identify him as a character, they strike up a friendship…for starters.
Interestingly, the movie leaps in and out of the game. When it’s not following Ryan Reynolds around inside the game, it’s sitting in with the game’s real-life creators and coders. Millie (also Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery) are the game’s true originators, but Big Gaming Company’s ruthless CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi) has stolen their code. Millie has left the company but Keys is still there, and he and partner Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are among the first to notice that an NPC in the game seems to have gone rogue. They assume some keener has simply hacked the NPC’s code, but there’s actually much more at play: Millie and Keys’ original code wasn’t just for some shoot ’em up game, but for AI that would become self-aware. It seems that Guy has somehow reached that state on his own. He’s not just a video game free guy anymore; he’s fully conscious, sentient artificial intelligence. And it just so happens that watching him level up through the game in order to win the heart of Molotovgirl (interestingly, Milie’s in-game avatar) is highly entertaining. People around the world stop playing the game in order to watch, a crazy phenomenon that doesn’t make the company any money. In fact, sales of the game’s sequel are slumping too, which makes Antwan everyone’s new enemy. His plan to erase the code for good threatens Millie and Keys’ livelihood but more importantly, robs the world of their scientifically significant invention, and it also of course threatens Guy’s very life, for he is a self-aware consciousness, but he only exists in the game.
Don’t worry. There’s no existential crisis here, no philosophical debate. This is a popcorn movie. Video game violence mixed with Reynolds’ trademark good guy vibes make Free Guy irresistible. Reynolds gets to do what he does best, playing a naïve, hapless guy who chuckles at life’s little foibles. Guy’s best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) is just as guileless and gratified; together they’re the picture of perfect contentment until someone’s awakening starts to expose the cracks in their happy little lives.
Had Alexander Payne written/directed this, we’d have an introspective, meta exploration of the Life is a Game philosophy at its core, debating the rules, and how to win, and just who was the Great Gamer in the Sky operating the controller. And though I’d kind of like to see that movie, Free Guy, however, is in the hands of Shawn Levy, oh ye of Night at the Museum, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Internship, and Real Steel. Dude is guaranteed to keep this thing light. Super light. L-I-T-E lite, even. But that’s not a bad thing. It seems Levy has cured his habit of creating utter crap and found his stride, matching Reynolds’ sweetness and goofiness bit for bit. There’s an enthusiasm here that’s hard to beat, and Free Guy turns out to be exactly the kind of movie we need after 18 months of no movies. It’s endearing, entertaining, and energetic. Dumb, but fun. Dumb, but not brainless. Crowd-pleasing but not bland. Crowd-pleasing but not condescending. Caters to gamers with plenty of tongue-in-cheek Easter eggs, but doesn’t alienate anyone. It’s a rare family-friendly (PG-13), action-comedy-sci-fi hybrid that has something for everyone but still feels fresh and exciting. Good Great Gamer in the Sky, what more do you need?