The first thought that came to me when I started watching Free Guy was that it seemed like a cross between The Lego Movie, Groundhog Day and The Truman Show. Ryan Reynolds’ unremarkable and happy-go-lucky “Blue Shirt Guy” (or, just “Guy”) was eerily similar to Chris Pratt’s naïve and ever-joyful Lego-man Emmet. Guy lives the same day over and over like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors: saying hi to his goldfish each morning, wearing the same blue button-down and khakis to his job as a bank teller every day, walking to work while drinking his daily never-changing coffee order alongside his BFF and bank security guard Buddy (Lil Rey Howery), and then chatting with Buddy face down on the cold tile floor of the bank every afternoon once it inevitably gets robbed by a violent criminal.
Eventually, we learn that much like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, Guy’s every move is broadcast — without his knowledge — to countless people around the globe. For Guy is an NPC, or a “non-player character” in the popular open world game Free City. He’s just supposed to be in the background, unable to fight back against “real” characters, make any decisions, or change his fate.
But one day he spies a woman (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer) who stirs something within him that somehow enables him to break out of his repetitive routine, much to the alarm and confusion of his other NPC friends. In Free City, the woman who catches his eye goes by the name Molotov Girl, but in the real world she’s Millie, a game programmer.
A few years earlier, Millie, together with her best friend Keys (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery) developed a video game in which characters can evolve through the use of artificial intelligence. Millie suspects that their previous-partner-turned-gaming-CEO Antoine (a completely over-the-top Taika Waititi) stole their code and used it in Free City, but so far she’s been unable to prove it. But now, with Guy’s help, she just might. However, once Antoine learns of their plans, he decides to pull the plug on Guy’s entire world. And so a race to find the stolen code commences, with Guy’s fate and the fate of every Free City NPC hanging in the balance.
If you’re into gaming, you’ll undoubtedly love the several cameos from real gaming commentators and YouTubers, as well as what I’m sure are a ton of Easter eggs that went over my head. There are also a few other cameos that are both hilarious and touching — with one near the end of the film that had my entire theater howling.
And that’s a big part of what saved Free Guy for me. Every time I started to get antsy or a little bored, something would happen — like an unexpected cameo, or a change in pace, or a great one-liner — that had me laughing and reengaged. However, I do think that the issue with this movie is that director Shawn Levy and writers Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman couldn’t nail down a clear message or overall theme for Free City. Is it a spoof of gaming culture? Is it a commentary on violence versus kindness … or maybe on corporate greed? Is it trying to make us think about other “people in the background?” Is it about fate versus free will, or maybe controlling your own destiny? Is it trying to convince us to enjoy our actual lives versus getting sucked into online worlds? I haven’t even touched on the whole romantic subplot…
If Ryan Reynolds wasn’t the star of this movie, I don’t think it would half as enjoyable as it is. But that’s the kind of charisma and pure star power he has — he can single-handedly save a movie that might otherwise have been a bit of a mess. Disney has already given a sequel the green light, so here’s hoping the next installment will continue to build on Free Guy’s strengths. And serve up some more awesome cameos!