There’s a gloriously good key scene in Free Guy which nails precisely what this joyously manic film is all about.
After a series of wake-up shots, where Guy (Ryan Reynolds in garrulously vulnerable form) has woken up at the same time in the exact same way with hallmarks of the trouble-free exuberance of Emmet (Chris Pratt) in The LEGO Movie, you see the film’s once unquestioningly upbeat protagonist suddenly realise something is missing from his life.
Staring through his goldfish’s bowl, his usual morning greeting to his pet fish frozen in a facial rigour of doubt and uncertainty, it is clear that Guy knows something is wrong with the world in which he lives.
Or, as he begins to realise in a rush, in which he has never really lived at all.
Because Guy is a Non Playable Character (NPC) in an open-world video game from Soonami Games, headed by the ridiculously un-self aware Antwan Hovachelik (Taika Waititi), who should not have an ounce of self-determination to his pixelated name.
His sole role in the game is to be a character for people play acting in the violent city-based game to bounce off, someone who plays the same role over and over and over again, his life a Groundhog Day-esque loop that repeats with the same coffee being given to him, the same conversations with his bestie, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), who’s a security guard at the bank at which Guy works, a bank that suffers almost hourly robberies that occur with such frequent rapidity that no one even thinks to question them anymore.
This is the same old, same old world in which Guy toils every day and which he has never had any reason to question; that is until he meets (with some iconic accompaniment by a deftly-used “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey which recurs throughout the film to a wholly welcome degree) the super cool, sunglass-wearing (all the cool people wear them, meaning the players, not the NPCs) Molotov Girl aka Millie Rusk (Jodie Cromer) who breaks the sameness of Guy’s algorithm-controlled sclerotic daily life.
Only that’s not why Rusk is there.
Played with sass and lovelorn sincerity and sweetness in equal beguiling measure, Millie is there on an altogether different mission, one that will, in the end, upend everything Guy knows about the world in which he is now actually beginning to leave.
His journey into self-awareness, for reasons that sit firmly in “NO SPOILER” territory, begin with meeting Millie but accelerate when he dons a pair of glasses he gets off a player, glasses which show his neighbourhood in all new light.
Bearing a distinct Truman Show vibe, though with that film’s searing darkness of the soul, Free Guy quickly becomes a joyously light and bright journey to a place where free will and self-determinism beat fate’s arse in a heartbeat, leaving us in no doubt that having a say in your destiny, whatever the flaws inherent in that approach, is far better than being a slave to your programming.
And let’s be clear here – the sugary sweet empowerment of the message is delivered with not a trace of subtlety or thoughtful rumination but then that’s okay because Free Guy makes it clear from it’s first vibrantly gushy scene that it is not there to be coy or hide its heart-on-a-sleeve light under any kind of bushel.
It is there to have fun with heart, lots and lots of heart, with the screenplay by writer Matt Lieberman placing the focus very much on going all out with a bubblegum ice cream joyousness that percolates through the shimmery narrative even when things reach the climactically intense final act when Things Are Most Definitely on the Line.
Subtle it is not but for all its crash and crash through messaging, Free Guy is enormously charming and likeable, taking the time needed to establish the major key characters, including Guy, Millie and her onetime game developing partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) as real people with things that matter at stake.
It’s not a rip-roaring behemoth of meaningful humanity but it has enough of a presence that the film never feels like a confected piece of fluff and nonsense with no emotional weight or soul.
Key to that, apart from a ripplingly sparky script and crisp direction from Shawn Levy that sees the films through some of its more riotously messy sections, is Reynold’s performance.
While his well-loved improv schtick is very much present and accounted for, all dimples, quips and ready wit, he also brings a poignancy to Guy who undergoes an all too believable existential crisis that makes perfect sense when you realise he has found his entire life is a great big programmed lie and that maybe, just maybe, it could be about to end.
Going from unaware NPC to very much self aware saviour of the say is quite the leap, and not one that Guy manages entirely gracefully.
Yes, he levels up in spectacular fashion, confounding those looking on in gaming circle since no NPC is supposed to be able to think for themselves, but he’s also stricken with the idea that all the certainties of his life have gone, and while a brighter, better future beckons, it is by no means assured and there is a real possibility this great awakening of his might come to nothing.
Thankfully he has Millie in the game with him, and Keys helping from outside so he’s not entirely alone, but he has a lot to deal with in a very short amount of time and the film lets him be both down at heel and hilariously bouncy as only the newly-liberated can be.
While it might look like a extravagantly colourful, cartoonishly violent piece of forgetful fun, and yes, that is true to some extent, Free Guy is overwhelmingly a sweet and wonderful joy, a wisecracking riot of exuberant freneticism that celebrates the freedom to be your own damn self, even if that is a reawakened NPC who discovers in ways that will lighten up and brighten your soul, and provide you with plenty of laughs and swoon-worthy sighs into the bargain, that there is a whole lot more to life than he imagined possible.