‘Free Guy,’ a Classic Comedy for Non-Player Characters

A video-game movie that non video-game people can love

Free Guy, an adventure-comedy set in an open world video game, sounds like the world’s least likely fit for a moviegoer like me.

I spent my teen years loitering in the local multiplex’s lobby, watching my boyfriend feed quarters into the early 80s arcade game, Joust, too skittish and frankly, bored, to commandeer the joystick myself.

Modern gaming holds even less appeal. On the handful of occasions when curiosity has gotten the better of me, I died way before I could figure out how to leap or shoot or what ever the hell one does to avoid annihilation by one’s adversary’s psychotic avatar.

FREE GUY ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Written by: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Joe Keery
Running time: 115 mins

Those who market big, splashy, CGI-enhanced summer flicks with deep roots in video games know I’m in the expendable demographic.

No wonder I related to star Ryan Reynolds’ sacred fool.

He’s expendable too, a “non-playable character” who exists to provide a bit of real world background texture to Free City, the ultra-violent video game he nominally inhabits, and to serve as cannon fodder for any rampaging player screeching past.

The playable characters get fetish-y post-apocalyptic costumes (shout out to designer Marlene Stewart), souped up rides, an arsenal of weapons, and sunglasses, which set them apart from pawns like the admiring and deeply uncool Guy, whose name is really more of a designation.

The game designers label other non-playable characters according to job or archetype – barista, bombshell, salesman, old lady. The fictional Guy works in a bank, but he’s so nondescript in his blue button down and khaki pants, that “guy” is about as much interest as they can muster in him.

“Waste that mother!” a little girl shouts, as he wanders onto her older sister’s screen. “Just smoke his ass!”

Upon getting some sunglasses of his own, Free Guy quickly goes from supernumerary to fan favorite.

Motivated by a massive crush on Jodi Comer’s Molotovgirl, a tart-tongued Femme Nikita-type in leather pants and Gloria Steinem frames, he throws himself into the chaotic virtual world he was previously too dim to inhabit fully.

His personality, however remains intact – like Will Farrell’s Buddy the Elf, he’s an outgoing innocent, pure of heart, and determined to do good, while causing no harm.

This unexpected development becomes a primary topic for Youtube gaming influencers, while wreaking mayhem at the design studio responsible for Free City.

CEO Antwan (an unchecked Taika Waititi) stomps around in a ludicrous buccaneer coat, berating underlings, including Stranger Things’ Joe Keery and Comer (again), to pull the entire game offline.

When he heads for the server room with a landscaping axe, it’s nervewracking, like someone could get real-world hurt.

Director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn have a lot of fun negotiating these dual universes.

As Guy’s artificial intelligence begins to blossom, he quizzes Molotovgirl–or rather, the player operating her–on the differences between the nightmarish Free City and the real world, a place of ice cream carts, petunia-lined riverwalks … and a “massive gun violence problem.”

A memorable Free City maniac, shedding his sunglasses, is immediately imbued with the emotional characteristics of the overgrown, Red Vines-munching fanboy controlling him from his childhood bedroom. (“Mom, do NOT touch that sock! It’s my special sock!!”)

A ‘roided up dude character in Game Over briefs (Reynolds, again), who Antwan forces developers to debut before they’ve completed his script, swaggers as he delivers his placeholder catch phrase–literally, “Catch phrase!” The unclosed loopholes in his code make him susceptible to a gentler exercise in online world building, one where rainbows, unicorns, and green architecture reminiscent of Milan’s Bosco Verticale reign supreme.

Free Guy maintains this sweet and sour mix throughout, making for an unexpectedly sophisticated crowdpleaser. No extra spoonfuls of sugar are required to help Free Guy’s keen, at times oddly moving, social commentary go down.

If every video-game movie is like Free Guy, I’m all in.

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Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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