You know how when you’re in the office and there are those people who are just … there? Whether your boss sends you to them to retrieve an important bit of information or they come to you with a task with which they need help, talking to them is always awkward because they speak in these stilted, robotic words. So you wind up not getting to know much about them beyond the small scope of your direct interaction with them. Plus, occasionally one of them gets glitchy and repeatedly tries to walk through a wall. At your job, you call them accountants, but video gamers call them “NPCs,” or non-player characters. They’re the people built into the video game who are coded to create the environment, help the players out, give missions, and other necessary-but-mundane tasks.
Free Guy is about a video game called Free City, and Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is one of those video-game NPCs, except he of course does not know this. (See: the similarly in-the-dark protagonists of The Truman Show or The LEGO Movie.) Guy has a goldfish, wears blue shirts, and works in the bank, where his job mostly consists of laying calmly on the floor while strangers repeatedly break into rob the joint. He is utterly unaware of the fact that his life is a scripted and wholly monotonous routine, just as the other NPCs who litter the city fail to realize that they exist solely for the amusement of the game’s players. However, after a seemingly random encounter with “one of the people who wear sunglasses” (a player), Guy begins to ever-so-slightly break out of his routine and quickly finds himself able to participate in the game, despite still not being aware that he is actually in a game. Over time, Guy gets deeper into the video game experience, and the film works more often than not from this angle, with a number of amusing plays on video game elements and tropes, and some solid jokes that stand alone even if one knows nothing of video games.
Guy’s motivations for much of what he does in Free City stem from Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), the player he previously bumped into and who may be responsible for this glitch that’s taken him off-script. He’s infatuated with her and essentially is trying to help her with her mission which … well, the MacGuffin that Molotov Girl and her real-life player Millie are chasing has to do with, I shit you not, software licensing and copyright infringement.
Just the plot device that we all have been waiting for!
The result of this MacGuffin is that the movie spends substantial time focused on Soonami, the gaming company behind Free City, and winds up falling under the meta-weight of its premise. In the real world, two coders (played by the always well-haired Joe Keery and the usually very funny Utkarsh Ambudkar) are flummoxed by what they believe is a player who has hacked the game to look like an NPC (leading to Guy’s abject confusion when he is repeatedly asked about his “skin”). Meanwhile, their boss and the company’s owner, Antoine (Taika Waititi), loves the attention that this Guy “player” is getting in the public until it begins to threaten the launch of Free City 2, at which point … it doesn’t matter. Every time the film cuts to the real world, it loses virtually all momentum, even when those cuts are frenetic back-and-forths between the real world and the game world.
This is compounded by the fact, and it pains me to say this, that Waititi is awful in Free Guy. Aside from one truly amusing bit of physical comedy, he’s playing in a mode that wants to be a hilarious caricature but mostly feels like a grating distraction wearing the skin of amplified nonsense. The other “real world” performances are less distracting and more just … there. Ambudkar is amusing enough, but saddled with material that does not play to his innate charisma, and Keery is given even less with which to work despite having substantial screen time.
This all stands in stark contrast to the Free City side of the film, where the performances mostly shine. Reynolds is … well, his performance is more the gimmicky persona of Ryan Reynolds than an actual character, but that’s perfect for this heightened video game world. It’s a delight to see Comer use the charms and action chops she has shown on Killing Eve, but this time in a less-psychopathic mode. (I say this with all sincerity: More than anything, Free Guy now has me craving a really good rom-com with Comer in the lead.) Guy’s best friend is played by Lil Rey Howery and he is a pleasure at all times. And there are a handful of amusing (and one outright hilarious) cameos within Free City that lean into the absolute nonsense of the premise.
There is also one brief real-world cameo that I suspect many will go ape over but, truthfully, the in-game moment leading up to that cameo is much funnier and better executed. Similarly, the best cameo, which does take place in-game, is dampened with cuts to the real world where we see a painfully stereotypical gamer in the form of an obnoxious 20-something living with his mom. This is a character the film keeps coming back to, and it highlights the exact problem with Free Guy, which is that the film’s “real world” is miserable drudgery. Even that stupid MacGuffin: If you try to think about the “mechanics” of what the film does with it, it’s a more preposterous premise than “a video game character wakes up.” And yet, had Free Guy worked harder to stay within Free City and commit to the bit, following the The Lego Movie blueprint, the idiocy of the MacGuffin and its execution wouldn’t much matter and the movie likely could have been a successfully middling “oh, that’s cute and fun enough” comedy. Instead, by continually cutting back to the “real world” and highlighting the actual idiocy of the film’s underlying plot, Free Guy winds up a muddled meh.
Free Guy opened in theaters on August 13.