I started playing SimCity in the early days of the lockdown. I did it out of sheer, soul-crushing boredom and quickly became addicted to the high of unlocking achievements and acquiring new items to use in the game. I totally understand the appeal of dropping into a fantasy world and shooting the place to hell, but I’ve found it more rewarding building a world to my own specifications. (I put the Oslo Opera House in my virtual city, something I’m inordinately proud of.) Free Guy is a movie that understands why people play both types of games and pits those two mindsets against each other, with brilliantly funny results.
Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, a non-player character — NPC in the argot of video-game enthusiasts — in a Grand Theft Auto-like shoot-em-up game called Free City. A teller at a bank that is hit by armed robbers several times per day, Guy exists only to comply with the thieves’ commands and occasionally be shot and killed. This has no impact on his cheerful demeanor, nor do the murders and explosions he sees on the street every time he goes out. However, the avatar of a player calling herself MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer) inspires him to deviate from his programming and accidentally kill the next bank robber. Guy takes the man’s sunglasses and sees what the players see: weapons statistics, inventories, and the locations of health packs. Growing a consciousness, Guy starts leveling up in the game by foiling crimes and stealing players’ weapons. He becomes a hero among real-world gamers, so the evil gaming mogul behind Free City (Taika Waititi) determines to wipe him out before launching Free City 2.
Many others before have wondered what the inner lives of video game characters might be like — Wreck-It Ralph beat this movie to that particular spot. Free Guy distinguishes itself by being attuned to gaming culture, as real-life YouTube and Twitch gamers, Hollywood celebrities, and the dearly departed Alex Trebek make cameo appearances to comment on Guy’s sudden burst of agency. Thinking that a hacker has somehow taken control of a character not meant to be played, two of the developer’s programmers (Joe Keery and Utkarsh Ambudkar) have their game alter egos pull their guns on Guy and say, “We’re gonna kill you. Then keep killing you. Then find out who you are and ban you for life.” (Guy responds, “The order of those threats is really confusing.”) MolotovGirl’s real-life player Millie (also played by Comer), a coder whose work was stolen and used in Free City, realizes that she has achieved a programming Holy Grail by unwittingly creating an AI that has learned to think for itself. Millie also has opinions on the male trolls she’s encountered in the game and in the industry, and I wish the movie had let her air more of them. When it comes to why people devote so many hours to playing or creating games, this film is way smarter than Ready Player One.
That makes it easy to overlook the fact that neither of the romantic plots — one in the game, one IRL — quite works. The parallels between game characters and movie characters seem to elude the filmmakers, and Guy’s spearheading of a revolt by Free City’s NPCs should have led to more. Still the actors bring a ton of energy to this, as Waititi nails the part of a T-shirt-wearing Burning Man-attending corporate tyrant and Comer has great fun switching between the blonde, timid, American-accented Millie and the brunette, impossibly cool, British-accented MolotovGirl. In the role of a person so square that he’s kinda hip, Reynolds finds a new way to play a decent, upstanding man without making him boring.
Guy’s ultimate objective is to reach a paradise hidden within Free City, a violence-free open-world game that Millie created. Sounds like a better place, even for those of us who don’t play video games. If Hollywood made fewer movie adaptations of video games and more movies like this that are about those games and the people who play them, maybe our real-life world would be better.
Starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer. Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. Rated PG-13.