Free Guy is a video game movie that thankfully finds more to explore than how many references can be made and how much of a game can be replicated. That much is covered thanks to the VFX-friendly director Shawn Levy. What’s more interesting is how this film takes all the ridiculousness and morally questionable actions through gamer culture and weaves a tale of both existentialism and romance. Not exactly what I was expecting out of a film that is overflowing with gunfights, car chases, and crashing helicopters.
Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, a chipper yet mundane and predictable non-playable character in a video game. He is not aware of his existence and has been programmed to desire little more than drink coffee, work a day at a bank (with daily robberies), and have beers with his best security guard pal (Lil Rel Howery). Given that he occupies a world replicating Grand Theft Auto, he resides in a city where gunfire and explosions are as common an occurrence as birds tweeting. In the same way that you dress for the weather, Guy’s world is one where you dress for the explosions. Or you don’t. You’ll just spawn again tomorrow.
It’s only once Guy becomes compelled by a certain player that he aims to do more. He wants to be like players who wear sunglasses and figures acquiring a pair will place him more in that league. What he didn’t count on witnessing was the video game world that every player witnesses in the game. Guy, not being familiar with video games, doesn’t understand at first. All he knows is that the power-ups make him feel great and the money he acquires can make him rich. But there’s more to his life than he may realize. After all, it’s not normal for an NPC to break from their programming and fight back against users. It’s almost like he’s not an NPC at all.
Taking note of this development are the developers of the game. At first, they figure Guy is just some hacker who found a way to alter an NPC as their player skin. But programmer Walter (Joe Keery) notices there’s more to this Guy guy than just being a faulty NPC. In fact, his own programming is in the game, stolen by the spiteful gaming CEO of Antwan (Taika Waititi). Working within the company that bought out his game, there’s only so much that Walter can do to unearth such a theft. It’s up to Walter’s a partner/potential girlfriend Millie (Jodie Comer) to find clues in the game and perhaps even figure out Guy.
In a way, the film is almost a reverse version of TRON. Both films take place inside a video game but they share a certain sense of existentialism. The programs of TRON are aware of their creators but find themselves trapped in a world where one program wants to absorb all, leaving it up to the unassuming human developers to jump into the digital world and act as its savior. Free Guy takes the opposite approach, where video game characters are not only unaware of their creators but unaware of their true depth. In reality, the humans who develop such programs must fight against a corporate giant who wants to absorb all their work. They’re not fighting for the user but for the game itself.
Outside of its relation to other video game movies, the film is surprisingly astute in terms of being a philosophical questioning of existence, an apt replication of video game mechanics, and a razor-sharp commentary on the corruption in gaming as a business. I really dug the sweetness of Guy who has grown up only knowing violence as a casual part of the video game landscape and slowly realizing that there’s more to it than that. What if, he believes, the world can be more than just bank robberies and car chases? There’s a part of his programming that has a longing for this sensation, the way he favors bubblegum ice cream and beers on the beach as opposed to high-speed races. When he finally learns the truth about how small his world really is, he confesses to his other NPC friends who are surprisingly helpful in trying to find good in the world rather than place it in a box of despair.
For the nitpicky gamers who will no doubt scrutinize such a picture, there’s a high level of detail that went into making the picture accurately reflect video games. Little aspects of characters stuck in jumping animations and soaring around on gliders will no doubt make a few gamers pop out of their seat like Captain America to shout how they get that reference. There are also lots of little geeky odes in the climax but such Easter eggs are treated less like a Ready Player One bombardment and more of a neat little bonus for those who dig Lightsabers from Star Wars and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2. It should also be noted that the film features a number of real-life gaming streamers who act as players for news montages. They’re not great but, hey, they’re streamers. Who better for them to play than themselves talking about the stuff they talk about most? After all, the few times that a satirized streamer is presented it’s your run-of-the-mill guy who lives with his parents, despite that sequence being pretty funny on its own merits.
One area I did not expect such a picture to proceed was with the satirizing of gaming monoliths. The company developing Guy’s world is one of a hostile work environment, a corrupt CEO, and annoying business practices of rushing out games with bugs and not making new versions backward compatible. I can’t say with absolute certainty that I’ve ever seen such a commentary of gaming companies present on the big screen. Considering this film is being released around the same time as the hideous allegations coming about a toxic work environment at the Blizzard gaming company, this picture is all the more topical of issues that have been going on in the gaming industry for quite some time.
But if all that seems a bit too heady, relax, the film is still a lot of fun and hilarious. Reynolds gives a great performance as a fish out of water who is just coming to understand that there’s more to life than the gaming world he occupies. I especially loved how his entire life has been shaped around the influence of the gamers who enter the program, leading to him making an incredibly offensive joke that initially shocks Millie. The action is big and exciting but also treated with a certain mundane apathy that becomes all too common in games with so much chaos becoming par for the course. Guy’s training montage of trying to figure out combat is absurdly violent in how he can’t figure out how to throw grenades or fire a gun just right. It’s also rather clever in how he tries to figure out the most non-lethal way to stop bad guys, making his character all the easier to root for in his quest for approval.
One more area that surprised me is just how much of a romance this picture turned out to be. Without giving too much away, Guy essentially acts as an avatar for a will-they/won’t-they relationship to finally make the jump from possible to definitely. This aspect is not only a clever twist but also better exemplifies the nature of how we often find ourselves speaking more through virtual worlds than we do in real life, communicating feelings that would be hard to conjure otherwise.
Everything about Free Guy just works on its multiple levels of action, comedy, existentialism, romance, and gaming satire. There’s a lot of neat aspects to chew on as well as relatable aspects to everyday life and gaming culture to consider. It does require some small leaps in logic as to why Guy, the first sentient artificial intelligence, would be relegated to a video game or how streamers would even care that there’s a Robin Hood in their violent video game. Thankfully, the suspension is only high enough that it’s more on a level of wish fulfillment that is actually worth striving for. I’m not holding my breath for a video game character who will revolutionize the gaming industry and its very