" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Free Guy is kind of like Stuart Smalley. He’s smart enough, he’s good enough and — gosh darn it — people like him.

Blue Shirts and Khakis

Guy (Ryan Reynolds)
Guy (Ryan Reynolds)

Guy (Ryan Reynolds, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) is oblivious to the repetition going on around him every single day. He wakes up, plucks one of a dozen blue shirts and khaki pants from his wardrobe and then stares out his high-rise apartment window for a while. He goes to the coffee shop for a medium regular coffee with one cream and two sugars. He walks by the same store fronts, the same people crashing through plate glass windows and stumbling right in front of him. He works as a teller at a bank and — without fail — it gets robbed. Every. Single. Day.

Guy is blissfully unconcerned. But Guy doesn’t live in the real world. He’s an innocent and he’s an NPC. In video game speak, that’s Non-Playable Character. He doesn’t control his actions. Nobody does. He just goes through the programmed routine.

But a strange thing happens to Guy and it’s something that also transforms the movie. While Free Guy is a comedy that features Reynolds’ trademark wit and patented looks, it morphs into a bit of a fairy tale, a digital riff on Pinocchio. It’s not that Free Guy becomes a Tron in reverse, with a gaming character entering the real world (save that concept for the sequel), but Guy starts to develop a free will (a concept which plays nicely as a thematic riff working its way into the movie’s title, along with the traditional gaming notion of getting a free play after amassing a certain number of points).

There is a story element that does feel a lot like Tron at Free Guy’s core. A couple whiz-kid game programmers are navigating through Guy’s world – a video game called Free City – trying to find evidence an egomaniacal developer named Antwan (Taika Waititi, Green Lantern) has stolen their code and incorporated it into the blockbuster game, a sort of SimCity meets Grand Theft Auto.

The programmers are Millie Rusk (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve) and Walter McKeys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) and their innovative programming is the foundation for the game’s artificial intelligence. That becomes the catalyst for Guy experiencing some behavior changes — ordering a cappuccino, for one — and it’s also an interesting premise that can be taken in all sorts of directions.

Trolls Are Real

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Free Guy is the ineffectiveness of Waititi. He knows comedy — witness his versatile efforts with Jojo Rabbit (writer/director/actor) Thor: Ragnarok (director/voice actor) and What We Do in the Shadows (writer/director/actor) — and he has a small, tender role in The Suicide Squad, to boot. But here, his character misses the mark. He’s neither menacing enough or obnoxious enough. Even worse, he’s not very funny. He’s just another jerk with a big ego, a sociopathic man-child when the situation requires a ginormous ego to balance out the unstoppable likability of Reynolds’ every man character.

Countering that deficiency, Comer and Keery play nicely and are a large factor in the movie’s overall likability and effectiveness.

The story itself offers unexpected depth. Screen scribes Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One) manage to create a movie about video games doesn’t require a love for gaming to enjoy the movie. Blasting past all the gaming antics, at the core of it all is a pretty good comedy, thanks to Reynolds, and a nice little romantic angle that develops as the mayhem grows.

It’s easy enough to like Free Guy, but it could’ve gone a bit further and topped the leaderboard with an unbeatable score by taking a little more time with some of the concepts at play here.

For one, as the movie starts, Guy talks about the “sunglasses people.” They get to do whatever they want, whenever they want. They’re the heroes, the people to aspire to.

Well, yeah. And they’re also the ones creating the mayhem. What Free Guy gets right is a pivot out to the real world, revealing who it is wearing those sunglasses — or, more precisely, AR goggles. Those people with all the power are actually pre-teen and tweenage girls misbehaving in the safety of the virtual world and 22-year-old men living in their parents’ basement while abandoning all sense of responsibility.

They all thrive in misbehaving behind the protection of anonymity from the comfort of their bedrooms (or basements). They talk trash and they are vulgar.

Have a Great Day!

Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery)
Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery)

All of that context setting opens up a big opportunity that turns into a big miss. As Guy latches onto the non-reality of the violence surrounding him every day, there’s a touch of social commentary. It’s noted in the real world, people rarely see a bank robbery. The streets of the real world are not strewn with corpses. Cars aren’t ablaze on every street corner. And there’s no gun violence.

Well, wait. It’s admitted that — yeah — the real world has a major problem with gun violence. But it’s left as a one-off joke when more could’ve been done to bridge the divide between videogame incivility and the need for real world civility. That’s even more relevant now, in this desensitized age of COVID. Granted, Free Guy was originally supposed to hit the big screen in July 2020, but that underlying message would’ve been just as valid before the pandemic.

So, it’s a missed opportunity. A bonus level that failed to get unlocked.

Nonetheless, take Free Guy for what it is: a fun little lark that throws off an agreeable ‘80s-movie vibe and fills the screen with a lot of funny sight gags (along with many, many Disney product placements — Disney bought 20th Century Fox, now 20th Century Studios, back in 2019).

One of the funniest gags involves a remarkable display of wealth, a tycoon’s collection of vehicles throughout history. In a lair dedicated to a life of excess, there are race cars, dragsters, space capsules and even a horse-drawn carriage — with a “live” horse.