Directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy” is a film of two interconnected plots. On one hand, you have a coming-of-age story of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-playable character (NPC) in the video game “Free City” who gains free will and awareness after falling in love with Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a player character. On the other hand, you have a detective rom-com that tells the tale of Keys and Millie (Joe Keery and Jodie Comer), estranged game-dev partners who go undercover—both in-game and in real life—to expose a conspiracy in “Free City.” One story is better than the other, and it’s not the one with Ryan Reynolds.
You probably already know partly why. The actor always plays what seems to be some version of himself: this smug guy with an insufferable yet endearing sense of humor. He is a perfect fit for Deadpool, but not Guy, even when the archetype is already massively toned down. The acting still feels much too glib for a supposedly generic NPC. And Guy remains overly cheerful with a smile that inappropriately hints at a care-free, unexamined life, despite the obvious trajectory of his character arc. I think Reynolds tries to add a few drops of naivete and innocence into his formula to fit his character, but instead ends up looking and sounding secretly sarcastic somehow. The recurring shot of him greeting his pet goldfish in the morning with a creepy smile never ceased to disturb me.
The character itself is devoid of drama. Despite being an infant AI who had just gained so much agency and intelligence, Guy spends most of his time simply leveling up in-game, trying to win over the heart of Molotov Girl. There’s surprisingly little curiosity in him to explore the nature of his reality or existence, even when the plot gives him every reason to do so, and hence there’s little humanity in this character (the most obvious, effective way to write a good AI character is to make them the most human in some way at some point). Guy comes off as just going along for the ride, and it’s hard to care about a story with such a protagonist. One redeeming quality for him, though, is the way he goes about leveling up. The power he gains does not corrupt him. He rejects the game world’s social norms of robbing banks and casually committing acts of violence, and decides to level up by being a pacifist hero, helping the poor NPC’s who receive so much abuse from players. It is strange how he’s able to level up so quickly in this fashion since the game’s clearly not designed to be played that way.
In contrast to Guy’s story, Keys and Millie’s adventure is a real highlight with its somewhat complicated but intriguing character dynamics and goals. Keys works for the cartoonishly evil Antoine (Taika Waititi), owner of “Free City.” Whereas Millie is suing Antoine for stealing the duo’s indie game code and putting it in-game, and she seeks her ex-partner’s help in getting that evidence. Keys reluctantly provides tech support for Millie’s playable character, Molotov Girl. Meanwhile, he can’t help but show his gentle affection for Millie, which he has long possessed but has always gone unnoticed. Yet there’s the obstacle of a peculiar love triangle: Guy likes Molotov Girl, controlled by Millie. Thinking Guy is a real player, Millie also finds herself drawn to his witty charm and unique play style. But what about Keys? This romantic tension leads to a clever, satisfying pay-off. I actually didn’t realize all the tension at first and was pleasantly surprised with the ending. The pair’s story was thoroughly enjoyable and heartwarming.
…Which is why I think the film should have had Millie as the protagonist instead and call itself “Free Girl” or something, since she is the most interesting and important character, who is actually two characters. Jodie Comer, who plays both, absolutely stole the spotlight, though her co-star Joe Keery was quite good too, and their on-screen chemistry was a joy to watch. I also found Taika Waititi’s Antoine extremely likeable despite being an irredeemable jerk and an accurate representation, save for his sense of fashion and humor perhaps, of toxic, money-hungry game company executives. All three actors outshone Ryan Reynolds and should have gotten way more screen time.
I should also mention that I find the premise of “game-dev relationships and office politics plus battle for intellectual property” way more interesting than some generic sandbox video game setting. The former remains unexplored and we need to see more like this. Anyway, I will now proceed to watch “Killing Eve” because I have developed a huge celebrity crush on Jodie Comer. Don’t tell my girlfriend.