Years ago, putting on sunglasses tipped the hero off to what was really going on in the world in They Live. Something similar happens to Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy. There is a difference: Roddy Piper’s Nada was made privy to the reality of human existence in John Carpenter’s horror sci-fi classic. Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in a video game, clued in by the glasses to the fact that he lives in a video game, which goes so far in explaining why every day of his existence is exactly the same. But that is far from all in this fast-paced, action-packed movie that is both a fresh and funny existential comedy and a delightful rom-com.
In Free City, Guy lives a strictly regulated life, dressed daily in identical blue button-down shirts and khaki pants, drinking the same coffee order, greeting people with the same catch phrase (“Don’t have a good day – have a great day!”), and destined to be robbed every single day at his job as a bank teller. Such is the life of an NPC, who exists only as background with predetermined actions and behaviors.
Unaware that he is nothing but a string of binary code, he is a cheerful, happy sort. But one day, he tries to order a cappuccino – most definitely not his regular order and not on the café’s menu – and it is the beginning of Guy’s emancipation from the dreary existence of an NPC. The glasses add fuel to the fire and so does the appearance of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), a comely British bad-ass on a personal mission. The twin revelations spur guy to become one of the “sunglasses people” he’s always admired: a man of action, and in his case, a hero.
Guy’s activities do not go unnoticed in the world outside the game. For Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Brittany Runs a Marathon), low-level techies at the gaming company, he is a problem to solve. For Millie (Comer again), locked in a battle with crass CEO Antoine (an exuberantly evil Taika Waititi) over code she is certain he stole from a game she and Keys designed that he repurposed for Free City, Guy might hold the key to proving her case. The gaming world falls in love with the character. Antoine, about to release Free City 2, feels threatened by the outlier and just wants him gone. And while Guy is all-in on his crush on Molotov Girl, Keys remains in oblivious denial of his feelings for his old gaming partner.
The screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, from an idea of Lieberman’s, keeps all of its balls in the air. The action is satisfying and blends well with the comedy, particularly in scenes where Keys and Mouser adopt characters to go into the game to track down Guy and in a confrontation that Guy has with rough-and-tumble character Avatar (Channing Tatum). At the same time, there is a sweetness that permeates even the most action-packed scenes, reflecting the personality of Free Guy‘s bubbly hero. Whether throwing down with bad guys, mooning over Molotov Girl, or earnestly trying to convince his best pal, bank security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Get Out) that there is a life to be had outside their rote existence, Guy’s warmth and good intentions shine through.
Guy is a role tailor-made for its star, capturing both his humor and bonhomie. Reynolds shines as this accidental hero and a man reaching beyond his seeming capabilities. As an NPC, Guy’s is a circumscribed role, but he has somehow slipped his programming and developed as artificial intelligence, capable of thought and feeling and of earning the admiration and empathy of humans. We’ve been trained to imagine an AI world as one of The Terminator, where we will live in fear of what we created. But what if AI is something else? What if AI looks a lot like Guy? Imagine the possibilities. Free Guy does and it’s glorious. –Pam Grady