Free Guy is a comedy with a fun premise: a video game NPC (Non-Player Character) slowly realizing he is, in fact, a video game character, and wanting something better out of life than what his programming entails. All of which is influenced by his unrequited love for the avatar of a player.
The NPC in question is simply named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a bank teller in a video game called Free City, which is basically Grand Theft Auto crossed with Fortnite (the destructive open-world of the former, and the garish, unharmonious elements of the latter). Guy lives a simple life: he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, puts on the same suit, gets the same cup of coffee, and walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – a security guard at the same bank – before spending the rest of his day on the ground as the bank is continuously robbed day and night.
Naturally, in a game like Free City, the bank in which Guy works exists solely as a mission for players to rob in order to get in-game currency and experience points. The players are known to the NPCs simply as “Sunglasses Guys,” with their eyewear being the movie’s physical representation of the players’ Heads-Up Display. The NPCs understand that there’s something different about the Sunglasses Guys, as they can’t fully communicate with them or do the things they’re able to do, but since it’s always been a part of their lives, they just accept it. The robberies at the bank are so frequent, that poor Buddy has never once done any real security work, as he hits the ground by default as soon as a player kicks in the door. To Guy, Buddy, and everyone else at the bank, getting robbed is part of their daily routine.
Things begin to change when, during one of his daily walks to work, Guy becomes smitten with a Sunglasses Woman named Molotov Girl, who is the avatar of Millie Rusk (both portrayed by Jodie Comer). Guy still goes to work, but can’t get the girl of his dreams out of his head, and wishes to meet her. So when the bank is inevitably robbed again, Guy doesn’t have the patience for it. Guy stands up to the bank robber, accidentally killing him in the process (he can respawn later), then takes his sunglasses, to the absolute confusion of everyone else at the bank.
Once outside, Guy tries on the sunglasses and sees his world in a whole new light: He can see the locations of missions in his immediate area, the NPCs and Sunglasses Guys have their levels displayed overhead, and health and power-ups are scattered all over the place. These are all only visible when he has the sunglasses on, so it’s like a cute video game version of They Live.
With his (literal) new outlook on life, Guy hopes to reunite with Molotov Girl and make a connection with her. But it won’t be easy. Free City is already a dangerous place as it is, but the developers of the game – particularly their boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) – believe Guy is the result of a player hacking the game to control an NPC, and make it their mission to make life in the game as difficult as possible for him, seeing as they can’t trace him to any actual hacker to punish him otherwise.
That’s the base premise of the story, and in that regard, Free Guy is a whole lot of fun. There are, however, some added details to the plot that I have more mixed feelings about.
It turns out Millie is a former Indie developer who helped design a game called Life Itself alongside Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who now works for Antwan’s company. Life Itself was to be a game about watching its characters grow and learn organically without player influence (sounds pretentious enough to be a real Indie game), but Keys’ and Millie’s studio was bought out by Antwan, killing Life Itself in the process. Keys just kind of gave up on his dreams and now works on Free City for a paycheck, but Millie believes Antwan stole the code for Life Itself and used it in Free City. So she plays the game as Molotov Girl to try and find proof of Antwan’s theft. It probably won’t take very long to connect the dots that Guy is actual proof of Life Itself’s code hidden being hidden within Free City, and that he not only grew and learned as Life Itself intended, but managed to gain sentience.
I don’t know, I’m a little disappointed that the film felt the need to give an explanation as to why Guy is able to defy what he’s supposed to do in the game. Movies these days seem to have a compulsive need to feed audiences every detail (God forbid we have to use our imaginations), and it kind of takes some of the fun away from a concept like this. Imagine if Wreck-It Ralph had to develop an entire side story just to explain why Ralph could go against his programming. It’d be totally unnecessary. Sometimes “because it’s a movie” should really be all the explanation you need.
The more serious elements of the “real world” side story is where Free Guy starts to fumble a bit (including a kind of cheesy budding romance between Millie and Keys). I could also live without the cameos from real life Twitch Streamers and YouTubers, which I think were meant to make things feel more authentic, but only end up reminding me of how annoying and obnoxious those areas of gaming are. There are a few references and cameos from real video games, such as Mega Man’s Mega Buster and the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, but they are surprisingly few. I would have rather seen more of the cameos from actual games, instead of the internet personalities who play them. Additionally, because Free Guy was produced by 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios) around the same time of the Disney buyout, the film also gets in a big fanservice-heavy moment featuring a few other Disney-owned properties. While this certainly works better and is far more crowd-pleasing than the Twitch cameos, it does make me wish all the more that the references to actual video games got the same kind of love and attention.
Still, Free Guy is funny and charming enough that it ultimately wins out. I especially like Ryan Reynolds in the role of Guy, who makes the bumbling NPC an innocent and naive hero who’s all too easy to root for. At the expense of being hated by a lot of people, I feel Ryan Reynolds’ schtick as Deadpool can get a little grating after a while, but here the act never wears thin. Jodie Comer makes for a great foil, and seeing as her character is the one who bridges the film’s two worlds, she gets a nice double act to play.
I also like the film on a visual level. Free City certainly looks like it could be a modern video game (for better or worse), and the video game setting allows for some fun visual effects. The film additionally features a solid musical score courtesy of Christophe Beck (who manages to sneak in a piece from one of his previous film scores that I won’t spoil here). Free Guy even has a surprisingly life-affirming message through Guy’s story, which is probably the more serious element of the plot the film should have focused more on, instead of all the real world hullabaloo.
The plotlines with the human characters may detract a little from the silly innocence of the “video game NPC falls in love with a player character and ditches his programming” premise that the film sold itself on. But whenever the film gets back to that premise, and we see the lengths Guy will go to in order to win Molotov Girl’s affections, and the turmoil he goes through the more he learns about the world he inhabits, Free Guy is a winner. It’s fun, funny and heartfelt, and even has a bit of originality going for it. It’s not too often those things come together these days.