What’s new, everyone? On February 23, Disney+ (courtesy of 20th Century Studios being absorbed into the Disney Machine) started streaming Free Guy, the 2021 action-adventure comedy starring Ryan Reynolds as Guy, the eponymous bank teller who lives out his naïve and happy-go-lucky life in a ridiculously violent—and yet oddly bloodless—city where it’s an everyday occurrence for ne’er-do-wells to commit bank robberies, tanks to crawl down the streets, and helicopters to crash. But here’s the rub: this place, Free City, is actually an open-world video game in which Guy himself and many of the people with whom he cheerfully interacts are unwitting NPCs (non-playable characters—you know, the oodles of background avatars who give you tips, fight you, loiter, or take any other number of actions in video games). When Guy learns about an impending threat to Free City, he endeavors to save it with the help of Millie (Jodie Comer), a real-world player who explores the game as an avatar named Molotovgirl.
Directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum trilogy, Netflix’s The Adam Project) and written by Matt Lieberman (Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, SCOOB!) and Zak Penn (2012’s The Avengers, Ready Player One), Free Guy is a whimsically charming romp that borrows some building blocks from the aforementioned Ready Player One, The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Groundhog Day (oh, and there’s one sequence involving Guy ordering coffee that strongly reminds me of a specific interaction between Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy in Inception). Is the romp flawless? No, it’s got some snags that prevent this from being a full-on winner, but they don’t drain away much of the pleasure I had consuming the exuberantly feel-good tone, the uproarious gags, the visual feast of the Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite-inspired Free City that shows off highlights like Utkarsh Ambudkar playing a programmer who enters the game as a police officer and tries to apprehend Guy in a pink and muscle-bound bunny suit, the draw of Reynolds’s affable and ingenuous performance, the gaming nods that display an unusually perceptive grasp of minor details like toggling between your in-game equipment and a player attempting a wall-jump, and a couple splendid cameos that put a smile on my face.
The script does take some plotting shortcuts, often inserting simplified bits like a major news network interviewing an indie developer duo (only gamer geeks, not the general public, would care about them) or a plan to delete one version of a game to make way for the next version (the studio would merely abandon the earlier version and let it become obsolete) to keep the plot speeding forward. But the movie manages to summon enough lighthearted pizzazz to prevent this from bugging me too much. Same goes for the product placement, which could have easily been presented in excessive amounts. Instead, it’s sparingly deployed and feels suitable for the moments in which it pops up. I suspect that if Free Guy had been created after Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Studios, we would have had to stomach an entire Disney Zone in Free City à la Ralph Breaks the Internet.
An element that’s easy to overlook but requires deep admiration is the well-crafted quality of the videogamey visuals. Mind you, they don’t come across as videogamey in the sense that they’re as crudely rendered as Dwayne Johnson’s Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. No, there’s a distinct feel to all the physical movements and actions, whether they consist of the copious number of flashy icons that Guy sees through a pair of augmented reality glasses, the avatar bodies that are hurled into the air in an almost floaty fashion after something slams into them, the big red health refill that Guy nets to mend his broken nose, or the weapons that vanish and materialize in avatars’ hands. None of the CGI comes off as cheap or rushed. The visual effects team clearly devoted time and effort into making them look as stunning as possible while reminding you that all of this unfolds within a digital environment.
As parts of the supporting roster, Comer is full of casual appeal that plays well off of Reynolds’s comedy and Lil Rel Howery is a gift box of delight in the bromance he has with Guy as Buddy, the security guard with whom Guy works at the bank (one of my favorite beats is a surprisingly vulnerable heart-to-heart that Guy and Buddy have together in the second half of the movie). But I can’t give the same praise to Joe Keery (it isn’t shocking to see the Stranger Things star here, since Levy has been an executive producer/director for the Netflix series), who plays Keys, a programmer friend of Millie’s who toils away in the complaints department of Soonami, the studio that created Free City in the real world; and Taika Waititi, who plays Antwan, the toxic gamer bro who runs Soonami. While Keery merely cashed a paycheck as the boring Keys, Waititi apparently decided to take what was already a flatly written antagonist and pump it up with some Level 11 hamminess in an attempt to make it shine. I understand what he’s trying to do with this David Cage-esque scumbag, but it’s a broad turn that palled on me. The charisma returned only when the movie cut back to Reynolds, Comer, and/or Howery.
Amidst all the daring exploits that Guy pursues to stop his home from being destroyed, he also falls hard for Millie—so hard that when he passes by her on the sidewalk on their first encounter, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” kicks into gear and the camera starts up the slo-mo. From there on, Guy declares her to be the girl of his dreams, the one who gave him life, the one who… craves bubblegum ice cream just like him? Yep, the movie has no qualms about letting you know early on that Millie is a manic pixie dream girl. It doesn’t help that Millie’s story revolves so heavily around Guy and Keys, meaning there’s little room for her to take agency and develop into her own complex human being. When coupled with a stalkery reveal in the denouement, it left me wishing the screenplay could have given more nuance to Millie instead of stuffing her into the MPDG box in a 2021 summer blockbuster. It can be a breeze to brush off this trope, but it’s deeply problematic, especially when you realize how many women of all ages have come away from media like Garden State, Elizabethtown, and (500) Days of Summer with the belief that they should set their sights on being bubbly and quirky fantasy dreams who swoop into men’s worlds to teach them important lessons and inspire them to enjoy life. If I had the opportunity to revise only one thing in Free Guy, it would be the MPDG-loaded lack of agency in Millie’s portrayal.
Plus, let’s keep in mind that Comer is about to turn 29 on March 11 and Reynolds is 45. Sure, it’s not like Comer is 20, and the character of Guy is a digital entity who is technically four years old, according to the movie’s claim that Free City has been around for the same amount of time. But onscreen romances that pair older men with significantly younger women is a bothersome pattern in Hollywood, and Free Guy is no exception.
For a few of Millie’s romance-tinged scenes, the score by composer Christophe Beck (Frozen, Hawkeye) uses a sentimental but catchy tune that would fit right in with any of the aughts-era rom-coms. If you want to know what I’m talking about, listen to “Millie” on theFree Guy soundtrack. The thing is, Beck actually recycled this particular piece of music from his five-minute score for Paperman, the 2012 black-and-white Pixar short for which he composed. Let me tell you that it irritated me when Wonder Woman 1984 lifted John Murphy’s score for Sunshine and Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. My feelings since then haven’t changed in the case of Free Guy. As much as I’m into the score for Paperman and as much as its fanciful tone suits the romance between Guy and Millie, I wish Beck could have whipped up a new theme rather than made me think of Paperman whenever its music accompanied Free Guy. Distracting the audience in such a fashion isn’t the way you want to go.
This isn’t as major of a shortcoming, butFree Guy could have carried out a bit more of an in-depth navigation of its inherent themes. For example, there comes a point where it could have genuinely mused over the consciousness level of AI, how much personhood they’re capable of possessing, and the moral and ethical debates we would inevitably have over our treatment of them. While this is present as a seemingly vital question for a short period of time, the narrative never really probes it as intensely as I would have hoped. Granted, I know this is meant to be a popcorn flick, but it shouldn’t preclude the writing from being able to head in a cleverer-than-expected route.
I know I’ve spent half the review criticizing Free Guy, but overall, it really was such a pleasurable time following the wide-eyed Guy on his crusade to rescue his world. Even though Free Guy is guilty of resorting to awkward and clichéd writing at times, particularly in regard to Millie’s depiction, it commits so thoroughly to its innocently ebullient spirit that I couldn’t help but feel pretty damn jovial after the credits rolled. And isn’t that what we’re all searching for? Considering Disney will be releasing a Free Guy sequel, I’ll say the answer is a big “yes.”
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 70/100