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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to depict a mythical or fictional person/creature doing something unusual, so I took a cue from the watered-down depictions in video games.)

We are the fierce and mighty ones, the villains and the threats,
Who thrive on crime and murder with no sorrow or regrets.
We’ve kept you up at night and made our way into your dreams,
And broken laws with teeth and claws, with swords and laser beams.
We feed our greed and hunger as our few defining truths,
Our sanity is doubtful, and we haven’t any ruths.
We are the Terminator and the Alien and Joker
(The versions that are threatening and not the mediocre),
The Predator and Dracula and all the heroes’ foes,
Who’d burn the world to ashes if we’d no one to oppose.
Designed to be disturbing and created to be hated,
We nonetheless admit to being thoroughly frustrated.
What do we have in common, we the kings of scourge and glutton?
We’re forced to pose and dance around when gamers hit a button.

MPA rating: PG-13

I’ll just start out by acknowledging that I am not a gamer in any way. I fell away from my Game Boy Advance over a decade ago, and while I wouldn’t mind playing games, I just can’t seem to find the time for it. So I am not exactly the target demographic for Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds’ good-natured riff on open-world games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto, complete with cameos from real Twitch streamers I barely recognize. Still, there’s great fun to be had in what is essentially a digital reimagining of The Truman Show.

Reynolds plays the optimistic Guy, a bank teller in Free City whose status as a non-player character (NPC) ensures he obliviously enjoys day after day of violence as players wreak havoc around him. When he notices an avatar called Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), he achieves unexpected sentience as he falls in love, unaware that she is controlled in the real world by a game designer named Millie (also Comer). Millie is searching Free City for evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the game studio’s CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi, acting oddly like a jerkier version of Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation), and soon she and Guy must risk it all to save his digital world.

My VC has a hang-up with video game-themed films like this or Wreck-It Ralph, simply finding it hard to care at all about characters in a game. I can understand that view to a point, but Free Guy does well in balancing the stakes in both the real world and Guy’s computer-generated sphere. Guy himself questions his own meaning when he learns the truth of his existence, and his buddy… um, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) provides an answer that puts their purpose on an individual level that is hard to argue with. Of course, Free Guy is full-on comedy action, but I liked little moments like that, as well as an underlying theme challenging the wanton violence in games like GTA in favor of decency.

Not every joke lands among Ryan Reynolds’ mountain of quips, but enough do to still make Free Guy a fun watch. I also liked seeing Joe Keery from Stranger Things as Millie’s programmer friend who works for Antwan, not to mention the loads of cameos, ranging from another Stranger Things alum to a Marvel nod that easily earned the biggest laugh. I especially loved a brief clip of the late great Alex Trebek giving a mock Jeopardy clue, which reflected how long Free Guy had been delayed by the pandemic. Buoyed by impressive effects and an infectious spirit of optimism, Free Guy may be a new skin on familiar ingredients, but it certainly knows how to entertain.

Best line: (Guy) “Life doesn’t have to be something that just happens to us.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

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