US (2021) Dir. Shawn Levy
For years we’ve had films in which real life people end up trapped inside computer/video games – anime has been milking that concept for the past decade with no signs of letting up. Now, we have something of a twist on that premise: a video game character who becomes real in his virtual world.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank clerk in Free City, living the same life day after day in which his bank is robbed by armed gunmen then he goes home to his pet goldfish Goldie after drinks with his best friend, security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). For all intents and purposes, this is a real world for them, but in reality, they are disposable background characters in the popular online game Free City.
Meanwhile, Millie Rusk (Jodie Comer), a game creator whose codes for Free City where stolen by mogul Antwan Hovachelik (Taika Waititi) is trying to find traces of her original code in the game to prove Antwan’s theft. One day, Guy is enchanted by Millie’s game character MolotovGirl and in order to impress her, decides he is going to do something different, creating chaos among the gaming community whilst serving as a powerful ally for Millie.
I don’t know if I have said this before in my reviews but I am not a gamer. I did once have a Super Nintendo 25 years ago (which is gathering dust in my loft), but I only played simple games like Super Mario et al. The games people play today are baffling to me whilst the gaming community is a fire-breathing monster I dare not prod, which would make a film like Free Guy an ill fit for me.
However, it did get glowing reviews so I thought, “Why not?”, although I wonder how many of them were from gamers or Ryan Reynolds fans. Admittedly, a lot of the bespoke references and dialogue went over my head but luckily, this film is accessible as a crowd-pleasing comedy for us outsiders too. Much like how animated fare like Wreck It Ralph is able to entertain both sides of the gaming fence, so does this film.
The first bit of gaming lingo introduced to us is NPC, which means non-player character, in other words one of the periphery characters the protagonist gets to shoot, beat up, or ignore. Guy is an NPC but doesn’t realise it and nor should he because he doesn’t exist, yet Free City is real to him, so I suppose he does exist since he is cognizant of the fact he wakes up every day, goes to work, drinks the same coffee, and so on.
Because this is a film, we are forced simply to accept this paradox of a fictional character thinking he is real and the fact we can follow his daily routine along with everyone else in Free City as if it was real. The characters played by gamers are larger than life with distinctive appearances, such as masks, crazy hairstyles, and an arsenal of dangerous weapons.
Except for MolotovGirl, who is Millie with short dark hair, glasses, and an English accent. The glasses are crucial as they represent the computer screen game play for the wearer, when Guy decides to steal a pair from a bank robber, he finds a whole new perspective to Free City. Guy’s sentience gives Millie hope that her original code is still alive in the game, but like everyone else, she thinks Guy is a hacker not an AI.
She encourages him to “level up” and score points but by being a hero not a villain, and soon this Blue Shirt Guy is a hit with the community for disrupting the game. Not everyone is pleased however, Antwan of Soonami Games is aware of Millie’s impending lawsuit and is planning to launch Free City 2, not as a sequel but as a replacement. This leaves Millie and Guy 48 hours to find the code.
Admittedly, there is something quite fun about subverting the gaming genre to tell a story which imparts a worthy message regarding how we shouldn’t ignore the support cast who make the world go round for the main players. Look into the subtext, and Guy could be that checkout cashier who spends 8 hours a day with groceries passing before their eyes, whilst for shoppers this is a once a week experience.
Running concurrently to this is the corporate bully vs. the creative worker drone theme, positing the antagonist in this fantasy tale very much in the real world. Millie is not alone in the real world though, her co-creator Keys (Joe Keery) still works for Antwan, feeding Millie insider information whilst saving her bacon under Antwan’s nose. Oh, and Keys is in love with Millie because of course he is.
One thing the duel world affords the film is plenty of ridiculous action sequences set in a “real” environment yet are excessively implausible like a video game, allowing gamers to get that adrenaline rush without having to lift a finger (or thumb). With this being a Disney production, a fight between Guy and a muscular clone named Dude features what I suppose is a parade of intellectual property cameos in the weapons Guy uses.
Cameos of the human kind crop up to bolster the star power of Reynolds and Comer, some in person like Channing Tatum, others via their voices like Dwayne Johnson and Hugh Jackman. Noted gaming YouTubers also appear, not that I would know who they are anyway. Reynolds is Reynolds, whilst Comer is far too good for this type of role, the insipid romantic ending being way beneath her.
Free Guy is a fun film whether you are a gamer or not although the 114-minute runtime is excessive for what could have been achieved in 90 minutes. It may carry a worthy and pertinent message that demands heeding but ultimately, this is undemanding, escapist, popcorn entertainment to the very end.