If you’ve seen the trailer or commercials for Free Guy, you’ll have some idea of what might not seem like a particular premise in which Ryan Reynolds plays eternally optimistic bank teller Guy in a place called “Free City,” a popular video game that’s like a cross between Grand Theft Audio and Fortnite with millions of young kids shooting at and beating up anything that moves. Guy is actually an NPC, a non-player character, in the game, which means he and his best friend, security guard Buddy (Lil Rey Howery), are often the subject of that abuse from teen gamers. One day, Guy spots Jodie Comer’s bad-ass “Molotovgirl,” and he’s instantly smitten. He soon realizes that he’ll have to come out of his comfort zone and join the more adventurous (and criminal-minded) of “Free City” in order to talk to her, which leads him on a journey to become Free City’s first true NPC hero.
Directed by Shawn Levy, directing his first movie since 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb — to be fair, Netflix’s Stranger Things has been keeping him quite busy — Free Guy offers a whole other level beyond the video game references with its sci-fi friendly premise of an A.I. gaining autonomy. I’ll throw a SPOILER in here, because there’s a second layer to the movie involving the real world outside “Free City.” Comer also plays Millie Rusk, a programmer whose work and A.I. code were stolen by the company behind “Free City.” Her friend and former fellow programmer “Keys” (Joe Keery) still works at Soonami (sic) Games, and he and co-worker “Mouser” (Utkarsh Ambudkar) have been tasked by their tyrannical boss Antwan (Taika Waititi) to rid the game of “Blue Shirt Guy,” even as he becomes insanely popular among gamers world over.
If you’ve played video games at any time in your life, you’ll appreciate what Levy and his cast have done with the script by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, which is quite a clever take on the often-toxic world of gamers and how a cheery and positive character like Reynolds’ Guy can change the whole dynamic for the better. It makes a great vehicle for Reynolds, but more importantly, it becomes a true showcase for Comer, who we really haven’t seen in much besides Killing Eve, but she clearly has a lot more range as displayed by her dual role in this film.
Taika Waititi, who has a significantly smaller but equally memorable role in The Suicide Squad later this week, is pretty funny (in an annoying boss kind of way) as Soonami head Antwan — and yes, you can already tell what an a-hole he’s going to be, not only from the name of his company but also the fact that he spells his own name incorrectly.
Free Guy is even more compelling by not ever trying to just be a typical action-comedy. There are many elements that take it into the realm of romantic comedy, both inside and outside the game. Like The Lego Movie, the existence of a real-world outside the fantasy world adds another layer that gives far more depth to Free Guy’s high concept, and it’s also one of the film’s frequent saving graces.
Technically, there’s a lot to be impressed by within Free Guy, but above and beyond is the production design by Ethan Tobman, who created the amazing gravity and physics-defying world of “Free City,” which goes through a number of transformations but is still a technical marvel from how his team essentially transformed Boston into a video game world. It’s interesting to note that production design on video games has gotten increasingly better with higher resolution HD video games becoming the norm, but Tobman’s “Free City” just includes what would be necessary for your basic video game environment. Like most games, extra time is spent on the detail of certain sections, but other parts (like the players’ stash rooms), are simply there to represent that aspect of gaming.
Much of the creation of “Free City” comes down to his work with the film’s visual FX team, who fluidly combine the live players with the virtual CG backgrounds, using VFX to alter them accordingly in order to make them look CG but still very lifelike and real. Free Guy is another example of a movie that involves so many different FX houses, artists and technicians that it’s impossible to single out just one person.
One also has to draw special attention to the costume designs by Marlene Stewart that effectively makes the player characters in the game look like they’re wearing outfits or “skins” literally created by pre-teen kids. It’s a small touch, but also a perfect and important bit of detail if you’ve ever seen how crazy the avatars look in open world Multiplayer games.
Action plays such a big part in the movie, and obviously, that falls upon Stunt Designer and Second Unit Director Chris O’Hara and his stunt team, creating impressive moves and falls that look great at times but also instill the awkwardness of action in real video games when kids are controlling the characters.
All of this leads up to a spectacular final act that’s just full of surprises and that pulls all the elements of Free City and the outside world together, as Antwan’s insanity over Guy’s existence and how it’s scuppering his plans for a sequel game (thereby destroying Free City entirely) intensifies.
Some may have already noted the similarities between Free Guy and The Truman Show, but more importantly, it reminds me of Ben Stiller’s take on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Guy becoming an unlikely hero, and that’s what makes Free Guy quite heart-warming on top of the multiple levels of humor.
Free Guy is such a clever, funny and all-around entertaining movie. Just when you think you’ve seen or experienced all it can possibly offer, Levy and his team throw another monkey wrench at the viewer to allow it to achieve yet another level of complexity. It’s quite easy to go into a movie like Free Guy with low or no expectations, but to come away from it feeling as if you’ve seen the best work by all involved is quite incredible.
Free Guy opens in theaters on Friday, August 13, with previews on Thursday night.
All photos courtesy 20th Century and Walt Disney Studios.