REVIEW: Free Guy [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 115 minutes
    Release Date: August 13th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: 20th Century Studios
    Director(s): Shawn Levy
    Writer(s): Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn / Matt Lieberman (story)

Don’t have a good day. Have a great day.

Every day is awesome for Guy the bank teller (Ryan Reynolds). While so-called “heroes” in sunglasses run roughshod on Free City by wrecking it with explosions, crime, and debauchery, his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and him get their favorite coffee (medium with cream and two sugars), talk about hitting the beach, and greet everyone the same exact way they did yesterday … and the day before that. If not for the hole in his heart where love was concerned, Guy would truly be wanting for nothing. He endures five to ten daily robberies by lying flat on the ground so those “heroes” can stick their boots on his face before emptying the vault and genuinely looks forward to pressing repeat until his dream woman walks by.

The world stops the moment Guy catches Molotov Girl’s (Jodie Comer) eye partly because the words she speaks when passing him are commenting on something he said. Sunglass wearers never converse with residents. They just throw them around like ragdolls or stick a bullet in their heads for sheer enjoyment. So why not throw caution to the wind and say, “Hello” despite Buddy’s objections? Guy’s changing. His confidence is growing and his desire for more has gone from zero to infinity overnight. He even wonders what it would be like to wear sunglasses himself—enough that he stays standing during a robbery and confronts the thief about borrowing his. Shooting him with his own gun might be an accident, but it does provide the opportunity to be reborn.

Director Shawn Levy and writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn use this unexpected moment to serve as Guy’s awakening. The title Free Guy is thus exactly what it says: a call to arms as well as a declaration of success. With strings cut, he chooses to skip work and follow Molotov Girl someone far off the usual financial district’s beaten path. It’s there he learns a bit about the rules of being a “hero.” The flashing lights and superimposed words seen through the glasses are missions, the floating sprites are power-ups to assist him in increasing his level. Guy doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but he does want to help with whatever Molotov Girl is doing. And since hoarding weapons increases his score, he’ll simply take everyone’s guns.

While all this is happening in Free City, Soonami techs Keys (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are watching via consoles in the real world. They see Guy not as the aberration he is—a non-playable character (NPC) who’s found sentience—but as a hacker messing up their company’s bestselling massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. Rather than bother their boss (Taika Waititi‘s Antwan) with it, they enter the game to get rid of him. Where that wouldn’t be a problem if he was a hacker signing-in with an illegal skin to cause anarchy, it is when Guy simply gets respawned in his bed the next day. His “good guy” shtick of saving NPCs quickly turns him into a viral sensation despite merely hoping to see Molotov Girl again.

For a good chunk of the runtime, this is what Lieberman and Penn have created: an unexplainable science fiction-esque glitch within an otherwise familiar escapist fantasy. As they let Guy evolve, however, they also pull the curtain on Molotov Girl being more than just some gamer looking to sow destruction. Her real-world name is Millie and her reasons for being in the MMO is to find evidence that Antwan used code from a game she developed with Keys as the basis for Free City. So beyond the comic antics of Guy becoming a “real boy” lies an espionage actioner on both sides of the screen with Millie doing everything she can on the inside as Keys is begrudgingly roped into doing what he can on the outside.

It’s pretty much an adult-oriented riff on Wreck-It Ralph with whiffs of The LEGO Movie. Think of Guy as Ralph (a pigeonholed videogame character trying to escape the monotony of his typecast existence), Millie as Vanellope (a conspiracy theorist willing to risk everything to prove what she believes is true), and Antwon as King Candy (a totalitarian ruler using subterfuge to maintain the status quo that keeps him in power and rich beyond his wildest dreams). Throw in the capitalist satire pitting Guy (Emmet Brickowski) against Antwon (Lord Business) while remembering the message has been wrapped in a nice corporate conglomerate IP bow (this began as a Fox film before Disney took over and added Marvel and Star Wars Easter eggs) and you get the gist.

None of that necessarily means anything (besides throwing shade on a marketing push that championed Free Guy as a “completely original world we’ve never seen before” and exposing how interesting it is that Disney bankrolled a movie about giving proper credit and compensation to content creators despite doing the exact opposite with comics and animated film writers) if its execution is sound, though. Not only does Levy and company stick the landing narratively, but they also find the room to satisfy audiences emotionally. Guy may have begun his life as a string of code, but he’s much more than that now. And while Antwon has no qualms erasing him from the servers completely if it means making money, Millie suddenly finds one more reason to fight back harder.

That war is the film’s backbone dictating every move forward whether finding new and crucial destinations or inevitably breaking Guy’s “brain” by explaining what he is. Every step is weighed against a rapidly moving clock to add suspense while the content of those steps provides the welcome dose of comedic flair expected from a Ryan Reynolds vehicle. Between his trademarked off-the-cuff one-liners, the constant shift from muscle-clad avatars in-game to their diminutive players in real life, and the humor inherent to someone doing pacifist runs through an MMO akin to Grand Theft Auto, there’s plenty to smile about. The fact that the plot never loses its heartfelt message about opening one’s eyes to the reality they want rather than the one they’re given is a cherry on top.

It also doesn’t hurt that the climax proves more than just another pyrotechnic boss fight. That’s still in there with a villain known as “The Dude” (Aaron W Reed) and the wholesale disintegration of Free City itself, but fixing it is less about Guy combating things physically than they are emotionally. He’s a sensitive soul who understands how to appreciate the little joys of life despite the anxiety-ridden, crippling reality of a chaotic world. He knows that the quickest way to earning a friend is by showing them the value of their own life beyond statistics. It’s a loose corollary to that which we know works but can’t implement on a wide enough scale to create change here, but it does resonate. Fun and worthwhile themes? Sounds great.

[1] Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl and Ryan Reynolds as Guy in 20th Century Studios’ FREE GUY. Photo by Alan Markfield. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Ryan Reynolds as Guy and Lil Rel Howery as Buddy in 20th Century Studios’ FREE GUY. Photo by Alan Markfield. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
[3] (L-R) Taika Waititi as Antwan, Utkarsh Ambudkar as Mouser and Joe Keery as Keys in 20th Century Studios’ FREE GUY. Photo by Alan Markfield. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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