If there’s a film genre with an uneven history, it’s the video game movie. Sure, there are some good movies based on video games, but not many. Free Guy, the first big release from 20th Century Studios in a post-Disney acquisition world, posits that maybe the best way to make a video game movie is not to adapt a game directly at all.
Adapting instead of the gameplay and tropes of massively multiplayer online shooters like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto Online, the film ends up being a love letter to gaming itself rather than any game specifically.
Ed. Note: As of this writing, there have been more than 3500 new cases of the novel coronavirus in my home province of BC in the last seven days. The Delta Variant is, by all accounts, far more virulent than previous variants. I am telling you this because Free Guy is playing in cinemas only right now, and while this film benefits greatly –I feel– from the big screen experience, no movie is worth endangering your life or anyone else’s. So please wear your mask, please maintain your distancing, and please make sure you are vaccinated and remember that Free Guy will be available on-demand before the end of the year. Safety first, friends.
The basic story is pretty much exactly what you are expecting. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a non-player character in a popular online video game. He inhabits a world with two classes of people, those who wear sunglasses (players) and those who don’t (NPCs). He lives his life in a scripted loop until one day something changes, and he decides he might want something different. This starts after a chance encounter with Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a skilled player for whom he immediately develops feelings and to impress her he acquires a pair of sunglasses (which reveals the game UI to him) begins to level up within the game by being the good guy; not by playing the game’s missions but by foiling players attempting to maim or kill other NPCs.
Molotov Girl is actually Millie, an indie developer with her own agenda for playing the game and whose past is tied with game customer service rep Keys (Joe Keery) and the games CEO and total sleazebag Antwan (Taika Waititi).
I won’t give away the details, but I will say that if you have watched movies or played video games, there will definitely be some things you figure out pretty quickly. The story does a pretty good job of making the details hard to guess, though, so by the time you get to the various reveals, they are what you probably expect, but not exactly what you expect, which is about as much as you can ask for with something designed to be so broadly appealing.
Stories like this are sold on visuals but live or die based on the characters and performances. Free Guy is excellent across the board in that department. Ryan Reynolds is pretty much perfect as Guy, playing the same fast-talking pace that makes Deadpool work, but in a PG-13 environment and with a character who only wants to help people. Taika Waititi lays it on pretty thick as Antwan, the douchebag CEO, but to nearly exactly the degree that you expect the douchebag gaming CEO to be.
Comer and Keery end up being the film’s MVPs, though, and the best friends who were wronged in the past and ended up on different sides of the resulting situation. They each have a natural charm, and Comer is excellent in what effectively ends up being a dual role, with the avatar Molotov Girl being a slightly more sassy and confident version of herself. Keery, who became known as the slightly dumb but ultimately good guy Steve on Stranger Things, brings that same sincere energy, but with a character that is actually nearly a genius. He gets some of the films more emotionally charged moments, and if they don’t make warm your heart, well, I’m not sure what will.
Lil Rel Howery is also on board as Guy’s best friend Buddy, a security guard at the bank who is slightly more reluctant to join Guy on his quest for self-discovery, but their relationship and chemistry ends up being as important to the story as Guys with Molotov Girl. Reynolds and Howery clearly had a blast together, especially in the early scenes where they act nonchalantly against a backdrop of utter mayhem.
Reynolds does carry the film, though, as you might expect, and his natural semi-sarcastic charm works like gangbusters here, as Guy becomes more and more badass while still telling every character not to have a good day but a great one, and meaning it every time.
The visuals are also stunning, benefitting from the fact that the CGI elements don’t have to look photo-realistic. Many elements you might expect to be CGI are practical as well, like most players character outfits and hairdos. The film is also clearly made by people who love video games, and the eagle-eyed among you will have a wonderful time picking up on visual references in nearly every frame. The eagle-eared among you will also have a fun time picking up on some cameos as well. By the time the third act rolls around, you might have stopped looking for these things but don’t worry, the climax of the film features references galore, but none of them feels cynical, and all of them add to the story –or at least the moment– they are in.
I am a few days late watching Free Guy and as a result, I have been inundated with hype. My social media feeds are full of people proclaiming that this is the best movie of the year and other effusive and hyperbolic praise. Hype is a dangerous thing and can push your expectations to dangerously high levels, so I did my best to write all that off; after all, a lot of that praise is being retweeted into my timeline by Disney execs.
You know what, though? Free Guy lives up to the hype. It looks silly from the outside, but the film is a joy to watch, and the story has a real heart. You will care about what happens to each of them, about whether they are winning and how. Made with care and attention to detail that makes it a love letter to games and gaming, Free Guy, as it turns out, is the best movie of the summer and might be one of the best of the year.
Free Guy is in theatres now and will be on-demand later this year.
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