I don’t wind up writing a whole lot of movie reviews. This isn’t because I don’t watch a lot of movies or don’t think about movies a lot, but just because, well… Massively Overpowered is an MMO site, and there’s not a whole lot of space for me to talk about movies on a regular basis. We also have a paucity of movies that are really MMO-adjacent, with the last one being the painfully bad Warcraft film, which was bad for a whole lot of reasons that I’m not going to get into here because I already spent two thousand words explaining it before and it’s just bad.
There are also no shortage of anime that take place in what is ostensibly a series of MMOs, and many of these series are also bad and show a distinct lack of understanding of the way in which MMOs work. If you need to be told that a popular anime with a title that rhymes with Board Part Online is bad, well, here’s your wake-up call. It’s bad, and it features a bad MMO that makes no sense.
And then we wind up getting something like Free Guy, which is a good movie featuring a good MMO that makes logical sense as an MMO and uses that game for interesting storytelling. So now I can spend another thousand words telling you why it’s good because sometimes my job is pretty fun.
If you’ve somehow missed the premise, it goes like this: Ryan Reynolds is Guy, a background NPC who works in a bank in a game called Free City. Guy and his fellow NPCs, including his best friend (a security guard NPC named Buddy played by Lil Rey Howery) do not realize they’re in a game. As far as they know, their world exists at the whims of what he refers to as the “sunglass people,” who will be immediately recognizable to gamers as acting like player characters – taking missions, causing chaos, blowing things up, walking around in insane cosmetics, and generally treating the world like their playground.
Which it is.
The one thing missing from Guy’s life is a romantic attachment, and a chance encounter with MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer), a high-level player, leads to him seeking her out. Through coincidence he winds up getting a pair of sunglasses, exposing the world around him as a game, and while he still doesn’t understand that he’s in a game MolotovGirl explains that he needs to level up in order to be on her level.
There is, of course, more going on here. MolotovGirl herself is more concerned with proving that Antawn (Taika Waititi), the douchey techbro in charge of Soonami Entertainment, publishers of Free City, has stolen the code she and current Soonami game master Walter “Keys” McKey (Joe Keery) had worked on. And you know, there’s the obvious question of how a programmed NPC is acting as a human being with a complete inner life and personal drives.
A lesser film, of course, would not bother answering or acknowledging those questions; the interesting part would just be that Guy is just like that. But the film actually manages to provide an answer to that question that both works within the logic of the film and creates a sense of real stakes for what is happening in Free City and why the game has become so popular.
This is actually part of the watchword of the film. It would have been enough to have Ryan Reynolds do his “super handsome guy with a snarky sense of humor” routine for two hours alongside Jodie Comer, and the two have a natural chemistry in their interactions that makes both the action and quieter personal scenes work. But what’s actually going on for most of the film is a more subtle examination of how and why we play games and how we treat what we see as background elements.
Particular praise has to go to Comer, who has to play a deceptively difficult role here as she is simultaneously playing MolotovGirl and her player at the same time, the fairly nerdy and introverted Millie Rusk. It’s a bit like having her simultaneously play Lara Croft and Jemma Simmons (by way of Jennifer Love Hewitt), and it’s to her credit that she feels contiguous. MolotovGirl does feel exactly like the kind of character this player would make, and she manages the slow opening of her real self past the bravado of the game making her feel like, well… a player opening up to another player.
And Free City feels like exactly the sort of game that yes, players would flock to. It’s a game that’s Grand Theft Auto Online with a slice of Fortnite and dashes of more sprinkled here and there; you’ve got player housing, customization, a streaming culture, an understandable gameplay loop, and a comprehensible set of rewards, risks, and appeals. As an MMO, it looks like a fun thing to play. Nor does the game ever try to make you feel bad about the fact that this looks fun; rather, it asks a question about why this is the only way to have fun.
See, Guy’s whole thing is that he wants to level up, but he doesn’t want to hurt innocent people. So he essentially starts taking advantage of the game’s systems and being the “good guy.” He foils robberies. He takes guns away from players. He stops carjackings. He displays an emergent gameplay system simply by deciding that his desire is to not be a murdering psycho.
You may notice that this is an actual debate we actually have on this site, and that most of our writers have noted repeatedly that MMOs can be more than simply murder simulators; that games are better when they provide the opportunity to have long-term engagement beyond just smacking things. This is actually a central theme of the film. It gives the characters and the setting nuance, that while it realizes there’s no actual harm being done to the NPCs (they just respawn after a while), maybe there’s something to be said about the fact that some folks go out of their way to exploit them.
Again, it would have been enough to simply not answer or even acknowledge these questions. But in the midst of all of the movie’s action-comedy antics, it manages to sneak in some genuine MMO discussion and food for thought alongside discussions of how we treat those weaker than us, the nature of sentience and personhood, the limits of reality, and the possessive nature of techbro elitism.
The film isn’t flawless, to be sure. There are a couple of contrived plot points that made me sit up and say “wait, that isn’t how things would happen” when the movie had generally played very consistent with the rules of its settings and how interactions worked (especially when MolotovGirl solves the third-act twist by doing something that makes emotional sense but not logical sense). The big fight at the end features maybe one cute reference too many; just pick one and that’s the one. And the film does rely perhaps a little too much on Reynolds and Comer being fun and charming enough to carry the scrip through weaker areas.
Also, it does bear mentioning that this is a theatrical-only release, so while I assume that all of our readers are smart and are being vaccinated when they are able, there is the real consideration of personal risk and the ongoing pandemic to be taken into account. Take from that what you will.
But in terms of the film actually on screen? Free Guy is a fun, heartfelt, charming, and keenly funny romp that’s going to be a pleasure to watch for nearly anyone but of particular enjoyment to MMO fans who can pick out all of the way the film lovingly touches on familiar elements of our shared genre. Now I actually want to play Free City, too. It looks like a fun ride.