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Film Review: “Free Guy” Plays a Winning Imitation Game

Film poster: “Free Guy”

Free Guy (Shawn Levy, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

A film as derivative as it is delightful, Free Guy, from screenwriters Matt Lieberman (Playing with Fire) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One), and director Shawn Levy (The Internship), offers clever silliness galore delivered with aplomb by a cast at the top of their game. The story takes place inside a multiplayer video game, entitled “Free City,” where violence reigns supreme. If you are a hapless non-player character (NPC), you’re sure to get banged up, shot or worse. Equal parts Groundhog Day, The Lego Movie, The Truman Show and West World (and more!), Free Guy embarks on zany adventures from the get-go and never looks back.

Ryan Reynolds (The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard) plays one of those NPCs, named, appropriately enough, “Guy.” He works at the bank and is, as are all around him, including best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Fatherhood), completely oblivious about his true nature. Every day he wakes up, heads to his job after grabbing the same-old coffee, and then is, most likely, robbed at gunpoint. Still, despite being pretty much content with his lot in life (after all, that’s how his algorithm was coded), he wonders at the powers of the “sunglasses people,” as he calls the folks who wreak havoc. Unbeknownst to him, they are the human players from the real world, and those “glasses” are the in-game representation of their VR headsets.

l-r: Ryan Reynolds and Lil Rel Howery in FREE GUY ©20th Century Studios

Guy also has a belief in true love, and when he one day catches a glimpse of a woman (wearing sunglasses) who looks just like his dream gal, he has a sudden hankering to not play by the rules and follow her. And so, instead of lying low as his bank is robbed, yet again, he snatches a pair of glasses off the face of a gun-toting criminal and heads off in hot pursuit in the wake of his would-be love. First, though, he has a moment (actually, several) of stunned surprise at all that he can now see via his new eyewear: power-up and repair cubes, weapons, etc. The game is truly on now.

Not so fast. First of all, in parallel to Guy’s awakening, we cut to the outside and meet two of the programmers, Keys (Joe Keery, Netflix’s Stranger Things series) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar, The Broken Hearts Gallery). Monitoring the game, they are none too happy to see Guy go off script. And so, donning their own headsets, they plunge into the virtual universe to catch and reset him. They think he’s an actual player who has hacked into the system to impersonate an NPC. In any case, hilarity ensues, but once they do put him down, thinking they’ve solved the problem, he just wakes up again, full memory intact, and picks up where he left off.

l-r: Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in FREE GUY ©20th Century Studios

And what about that woman? She is Millie (aka Molotov Girl, her game name), and she has her own agenda. Played by Jodie Comer (Hulu’s Killing Eve series), Millie is on a hunt for some secrets embedded deep inside Free City’s base code. That secret, which also involves Keys, her former partner, holds the answer, in part, to why Guy has developed consciousness. Unfortunately, Keys’ boss (and Free City’s distributor), Antoine (Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit), stands in the way, and could take steps to destroy the world’s first known actual artificial intelligence. What a tragedy that would be.

Despite those high stakes, or maybe precisely because of them, Free Guy is nonstop fun from start to finish. I am no gamer, but I suspect that those who are will find even more to enjoy here than did I. Though, again, the construct is a Frankensteinian mishmash of many different previous works, they are stitched together in ways that make the narrative mostly rise above the clichés. Even better, we care about the characters, NPC and otherwise, and that investment makes the ending, however expected, wholly satisfying. If this is what imitation looks like, I’ll take another, please.

Taika Waititi in FREE GUY ©20th Century Studios

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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