It really is amazing to me how wide the chasm of quality is between movies based on existing video games and those based on the general ideas and concepts of video games. In my near-40 years, I’ve only enjoyed two direct adaptations, the 1995 Mortal Kombat, which as I’ve noted was a perfect storm of kitsch released on my 13th birthday that I still love for its camp value despite it being objectively a bad movie, and Detective Pikachu, released a couple years ago and highly dependent on the charm of Ryan Reynolds, which also comes into play here. On the other side, movies that simulate original or parodies of video games, or simply play with the conventions, tend to be much better. I previously noted that Overlord felt like a competent version of a Wolfenstein film that doesn’t exist, the Wreck-It Ralph films are revolutionary, and even Ready Player One had a lot of good moments and Easter eggs despite the flimsy story.
Essentially, when you can take the fun ideas at play in video games but come up with a story not bound to the the limitations of the underlying IP, you can come up with something truly original, even if the basis is somewhat derivative. Hell, the Sword Art Online franchise has been going strong in anime form for a decade now, with the books going back a further four years and still churning out to this day. There’s even a second film scheduled for the fall.
The trend continues here with Free Guy, a film that has shades of The Truman Show and The Matrix to go along with obvious nods to the likes of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, but most importantly is just a lot of fun. With a simple story (presented with just a hint of profundity), compelling characters, and that aforementioned Reynolds charm, this is a movie that could very easily be torn apart and nitpicked to death, but honestly, I was enjoying myself enough to notice, but not care.
The film takes place in and around a fictional open-world video game called “Free City,” where players are allowed, and encouraged, to commit heinous crimes for rewards and experience points. In the real world, the game’s creator, Antwan (Taika Waititi, doing a lot with a one-note bad guy role), is getting ready to roll out the sequel, which he advertised as being backwards compatible with the first game, but actually intends to delete the current game, forcing his customers to shell out hundreds of dollars for the new game and all its add-on merchandise. Working for him is a programmer named “Keys,” played by Joe Keery (Steve Harrington of Stranger Things), who took a low-level job in the complaints department after signing an NDA when Antwan bought out and repurposed his own original game to create “Free City.” Keys’ former partner, Millie (Jodie Comer), however, is unsatisfied, and has been searching for proof inside the game (as a badass character called Molotov Girl) of Antwan’s theft of their IP to take him down.
That’s the real world. Inside the world of the game, there’s a completely different hierarchy. As the titular Guy, Reynolds explains his very orderly existence, right down to the same coffee order, set of clothes, and love of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” He works as a bank teller and shares most of his spare time with the security guard, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). Whenever the bank is robbed by a player, they assume a position and let the assailants get on with it. It’s just part of the routine. He does what he’s told while worshipping the “Sunglasses People,” who he believes are heroes unbound by any laws, and pines for that one special someone to come into his life.
That moment happens when he first spies Molotov Girl. He’s instantly taken with her, and even she notices something odd about him, as he doesn’t conform to his programmed dialogue (“Don’t have a good day, have a great day,” a spiritual successor to “Good morning, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.”) and directly engages with her about the Mariah song. That spark of individuality leads Guy to attempt the impossible, and grab the sunglasses off of a player, allowing him to see the Heads Up Display that real-world players get to see, and opening up an array of new experiences.
This gets the attention of Keys, his partner Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and eventually Antwan, as it’s against the rules of the game for a player to assume the identity of a Non-Player Character, or NPC. Keys and Mouser try to track Guy down, manipulating the game code as they go, but Keys eventually discovers that Guy is in fact an NPC acting of his own accord, something he and Millie first attempted with their original (stolen) tech, to create sentient artificial intelligence and evolving characters.
Meanwhile, Guy continues to pursue Molotov Girl as a love interest in the game, taking her advice to become a “good guy,” rather than the usual player’s M.O. of just destroying and killing left and right. He can gain experience and level up to be worthy of helping her mission by being a genuinely good person and aiding others, which Guy takes to heart, gaining him viral fame, which Antwan initially loves because it’s social media attention, but then hates because it’s drawing attention away from the sequel’s rollout. Thus, everything becomes a race against time to find the proof of Antwan’s crimes, save “Free City,” and resolve the feelings Guy has for Millie and convince him of his own free will.
Along the way, we’re treated to a parade of exciting and fun moments, from action sequences to pretty sweet visual effects. Even though it’s all CGI, there are moments when it’s convincingly real enough and certainly fits with the goofy motif of the scene. Reynolds provides some PG-level Deadpool wit, and there are a few bits of fan service strewn about that are downright inspired. There’s even the slightest hint of high-minded ambition as Guy openly examines his own purpose and ability to grow as a person. I guarantee you weren’t expecting genuine existential exploration in such an inessential bit of popcorn fare, but it actually resonates against all logic.
As I said, there are plenty of things to point out that don’t make sense. How can Guy just take a player’s sunglasses and assume their player status? How can he hold on to them after he dies and respawns the next day? How can he get additional pairs and give them to his friends? Why does a tank roll up, ready to kill him, when the game senses him going off script with regards to his coffee order, but never interferes with the much more elaborate diversions from his code? Why does the movie expect us to give two shits about a bunch of YouTube and Twitch streamers pretending this is real and commenting on it like they’re actual actors? Why would Good Morning America devote any time to this story (even as morning shows go) other than to shoehorn in another ABC/Disney property into the mix? What is the timespan of this story that would allow Guy’s overnight fame to become a question on Jeopardy! (RIP, Alex, and may LeVar Burton be the one to fill your shoes)?
That’s just scratching the surface. There are a ton of holes to poke here and there, but honestly, I just didn’t care. This movie is pure fun, and that’s what’s important. In a summer full of retread franchise fare, from Marvel to G.I. Joe to Vin Diesel and cars going vroom, it’s this film, which takes known themes and images but makes them feel unique, that separates itself from the chaff of the blockbusters. It’s clever, colorful, exciting, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. Honestly, it’s the kind of video game I’d like to play for real, because it has that perfect balance of otherworldly and familiar, and wraps it up in a satisfying package. I was genuinely smiling when the game was over. What more can you really ask for?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What video game tropes would you like explored on the big screen? Can Ryan Reynolds do any wrong at this point? Let me know!