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Two late summer movies offer surprisingly good cinematic fare

Free Guy and Respect bring story, song, and a bit of faith to the big screen.

"Free Guy", starring Ryan Reynolds, and "Respect", featuring Jennifer Hudson, are both currently in theaters. (Images: 20th Century Studios and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

It’s becoming increasingly rare to find a Hollywood effects-driven blockbuster that also has something worthwhile, never mind profound, to say about the way we live our lives. But the current box-office smash Free Guy is, surprisingly, one such film. It came out nearly three weeks ago in competition with the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, which offers another kind of Hollywood rarity: a mainstream studio film that bears a powerful Christian story of redemption.

Free Guy follows the adventures of a video game NPC (Non-Playable Character) named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who spends every day of his life trapped inside his video-game world as a random bank employee who has to hit the floor when the bank gets robbed by cooler, playable characters each day. Basically, he’s like an extra in the game, filling in the background of the robbery to make it more believable for the players.

Guy lives his life in rote, repetitive fashion, waking up at the same time each day before putting on the same clothes and getting the same kind of coffee on the way to his daily encounter with criminals at the bank. He’s happily oblivious to his fate, smiling and perkily conversing with other NPCs around him, until one day an attractive female lead character of the game catches his eye and he becomes obsessed with asking her out.

As Guy breaks free from his routine in order to follow his heart, everything in the game around him changes, as well among the storylines and lead characters. The game’s human players worldwide first react with shock and dismayed disappointment as he interferes with their wishes and messes up their scores.

But having a taste of freedom and romance for the first time ever, Guy decides he can never go back. And thus begins a very funny, exciting and complex battle of wits as the video game’s human designer decides to find a way to destroy him and possibly the entire world of the game around him.

Free Guy manages to pull off a tricky balancing act, mixing laughs, a sympathetic protagonist, and exceptional special effects with a storyline that’s genuinely exciting and fun. It has been years since I last heard an audience laughing aloud at a movie. And it was quite the sight to see that so many in the audience moved their seats out of recliner mode and were on the edge of their seats throughout the action-packed final half hour of the film.

While Free Guy recalls 1985’s Back to the Future in its ability to seamlessly weave together multiple genres, it also matches Future in having a worthwhile and substantive lesson. It shows that we do not have to accept the bad circumstances in our lives, and we develop good habits, break out of a bad routine, and see the world in a different way.

Free Guy is available exclusively in theaters rather than accessed via a streaming service. It is worth the effort to go to a theater and experience two hours of cinematic joy with other human beings, with its PG-13 rating coming from comic book-style action violence and some occasional mild swearing, it’s one that most of the family can enjoy together.

Meanwhile, Respect recounts the remarkable story of Aretha Franklin (1942-2018), the incredible singer who earned the moniker “Queen of Soul” over the course of an incredible 50-year career. It follows her from being a pre-teen daughter of a popular preacher in 1950’s Detroit through a life-changing 1972 gospel concert that became the biggest-selling album of her career.

The film reveals many remarkable details that might be unknown to the average viewer and music fan, unveiling that she had a huge creative influence in the writing and arranging of her most classic hits. One particularly great sequence shows how she took the song “Respect” from an Otis Redding song of a man demanding respect from his woman and completely flipped its point of view to become an anthem of female empowerment, as well as adding all sorts of musical and vocal elements to the tune that made it one of the most popular songs of the modern era.

But even atop the numerous musical performances, dynamically portrayed by its star Jennifer Hudson (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 2006 musical Dreamgirls), the film has incredible emotional and spiritual power as it digs deep into Franklin’s very tumultuous life. Her mother died tragically when she was a young child and she was sexually assaulted and impregnated at 14, leading to more than a decade of hidden shame that led her into a disastrous relationship with her viciously abusive first husband.

The weight of dealing with all that led to a crippling addiction to alcohol. “Respect” manages to address all of these intense problems with notable class and artistry, always cutting away from showing viewers the abuses and creating an impact by leaving it to their imaginations. As a result of all these hardships and her difficult relationship with her preacher father – who carried a noble and saintly public image while being an abusive husband in private – Franklin for many years held God at a distance.

But when she hits bottom and finds herself begging for God’s help and forgiveness, the moment is shattering. Hudson plays the powerful moment for all its worth, and Franklin’s resulting decision to embrace Jesus fully as her Lord and Savior sets up the film’s climactic stretch in which she fights to record a gospel album against the wishes of her record label and manager.

Respect, which is rated PG-13, is an Oscar-worthy creation, though it might not get much award attention beyond Hudson’s extraordinary performance since it is so strongly Christian in its message. Those who love great music and exceptional acting, while thirsting for a well-made film about faith – as opposed to most heavy-handed and sappy “faith-based films” – will be richly rewarded.


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About Carl Kozlowski 13 Articles
Carl Kozlowski is a Los Angeles-based, Catholic writer and comedian who wrote the "Cinemazlowski" movie-review column for EWTN's Catholic News Agency for four years and currently writes about film for the LA Archdiocesan magazine Angelus News. He is a Rotten Tomatoes film critic and was arts editor for Pasadena Weekly for a decade. He co-owns and co-runs Catholic Laughs, which brings clean, clever standup comedy with a Catholic twist to Catholic parishes and other venues nationwide. He's also the producer and a cohost of the weekly talk show "Man Up", which is like a funny, conservative "The View" for guys.

4 Comments

  1. Your reviews made me want to see both movies but your comments about Back to the Future I think miss the actual point of the movie. When Marty’s parents aren’t cool, they tell him he can’t go spend the weekend alone at a lake with his girlfriend. Once they are cool at the end of the movie, they think that’s fine. Any other message in the movie is bookended by the opening and closing scenes.

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