Free Guy (2021)
I will admit I'm not the best at judging a movie by its trailer. Guardians of the Galaxy was an immediate "nope" for me when I originally saw the ads, while Stargate was a movie I was champing at the bit to see. My reaction to seeing both of them were just the opposite of what I had expected, so I have learned to try to avoid seeing trailers unless it is a movie I have already made my mind up to see, and that's largely to see the release date they put at the end of it. These days, of course, that pretty much doesn't tell me anything either.
Free Guy was all over the internet with trailers and such right before it came out, and it is another one of those movies that has been hanging around in limbo for a year or so waiting to get a release date. I had not heard anything about it prior, and there was nothing in the ads I saw that told me what the movie was about. If anything it looked like another reluctant super hero film like Hancock, which automatically means there would be no way I could be convinced to part with two hours of my life if that was the case. Turned out instead that it's a strange amalgamation of The Matrix, The Truman Show and Her with a little bit of They Live thrown in for good measure. The result is not the most original tale, and it has plenty of faults, but it is still quite amusing and never devolves into the outright mess it could have been.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller in Free City. He likes his job, hanging out with his security guard friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and dreaming of his fantasy girl. The thing is Free City is an open-world video game populated by NPCs like Guy and Buddy as well as players who use the city as their sandbox to ride around in fancy vehicles, blow stuff up and constantly rob the bank and other stores. One of these players ends up being molotovgirl (Jodie Comer), in real life a woman named Millie who believes that her code, that she developed with her best friend Keys (Joe Keery), was stolen by a programmer named Antwan (Taika Waititi) for use in building Free City.
While Millie is suing Antwan's company Soonami, Keys actually works there and is at first reluctant to help. The one who is not reluctant is Guy, who soon breaks out of his loop and pursues Millie in the game, eventually forming a bond with her and agreeing to help her find what she needs - a video clip that will prove that her game still exists within the build of Free City. Problem is, independent of her lawsuit, Antwan is becoming frustrated as Guy (known in the real world as Blue Shirt Guy) eventually becomes the most popular character in his virtual world, disrupting the normal flow of the game.
With so many influences a movie like this should be a complete and total disaster. Surprisingly, Matt Lieberman's and Zack Penn's script wears its influences but never becomes overwhelmed by them. I did halfway expect a three-round fight to occur when Guy tried to get Buddy to put on the sunglasses that reveal what the gamers see, but since violence isn't in Guy's nature it doesn't go that far with the reference. Instead, Ryan Reynolds plays Guy as the ultimate optimist, enjoying his life to the fullest despite the fact it often comes to an unnatural end and the fact that almost every transaction done at his bank is at gunpoint. Despite this, the scene is still a happy callback to one of my favorite John Carpenter films.
Though Lieberman and Penn keep things light (and, thankfully for a comedy these days, largely free of toilet humor), there is a larger concept of Guy's emergence as a self-aware NPC. Normally these types of movies get a bit heady when it comes to AI rights and such, while in this case all that is ignored in an attempt to save Guy and the other NPCs that are following his lead before the sequel launches and erases them all. Rather than a discussion of whether Guy and his friends are alive it is more frustration over how Antwan would be willing to wipe out something as revolutionary as true self-aware AI just because it doesn't generate him a short-term profit. The fact that the characters were originally meant to evolve in some way also provides a framework for how Guy came to be, as Millie and Keys's original game idea was based on a fishbowl type game where players could interact and observe their growth - far from the violent free-for-all that is Free City.
A good portion of the fun also comes from seeing all the video game references. The movie references toward the end get a bit corny, although they are obviously meant to represent the copyright-violating mods that many people do to open world games, and I am not too familiar with Fortnite, but the main world Free City is based on would by the Grand Theft Auto games - just severely toned down to get a PG-13 rating. There are also references to Halo, Mechwarrior and many other classic and current games throughout, so one could spend a lot of time searching for Easter eggs within the movie. It also does derive some of its humor from gamer stereotypes, but I will forgive the writers for going back to the well as these jokes actually land.
The weak part is the romance. Not the romance between Guy and Millie, which seems unforced and in which Guy shows a mature understanding of why it's not viable, but a background romance that's hinted at throughout the movie. With the woke jokes that pop up here and there it is surprising that this part of the plot would fall back on old-fashioned Hollywood tropes, especially since they are gestures that the other party may not be too enthused by. It seems contrived, as if Lieberman and Penn were unwilling to just end the film with Guy achieving what he needed to.
I am glad I gave this a chance despite the fact that the advertising for this movie was a bit on the confusing side. Ryan Reynolds is definitely the one actor who stands out amongst them all, although Jodie Comer is pretty decent and Taika Waititi turns in an hilarious performance as well - it's like Michael Scott on meth for the most part, only without the likeable qualities. It holds up well despite not even attempting to hide where it got its ideas from and, refreshingly, it concentrates on jokes that are actually funny instead of just relying on gross-out gags.
Free Guy (2021)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi
Director: Shawn Levy