***1/2 out of ****
(for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references)
Released: August 13, 2021
Runtime: 115 minutes
Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Taika Waititi
Delivering as advertised, Free Guy is the year’s funniest and most entertaining action movie. What’s unexpected is that it’s the year’s best date movie.
For something that appears tailored for the young adult male demographic, Free Guy has a lot more going for it than you’d expect, and vastly appealing to nearly every possible sensibility. It’s as much a Rom-Com as it is a big budget blockbuster, cleverly sending up the world of gaming (and even critiquing it) without ever being cynical about it, all while giving us a VR romance with a very real and consequential core.
So who is this Free Guy? Basically, just cross Deadpool with Buddy the Elf, throw him into an online open-world video game with a The Truman Show twist, add some Groundhog Day-style reboots for good measure and, on the surface, you’ve got Free Guy.
Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum trilogy) could’ve stopped right there but instead he gives us something more than a contrived, Frankensteined monstrosity of older, better screenplays. Free Guy is an inspired fusion of high-concept ideas that becomes something special – and original – all its own.
Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, a background Non-Player Character (NPC) in the popular online game “Free City”. Guy has no idea that his world is actually fake or that a much larger and real world exists outside his own encrypted limitations. But when he meets Molotov Girl, an avatar in the game controlled by a young woman named Millie (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), something in Guy’s code triggers him to fall in love and begin to make decisions that go against his programming.
In short, Guy becomes the first-ever A.I. sentient being and, by virtue of being in a popular game, a worldwide sensation.
Unfortunately for him and all of Free City, Guy’s actions mess with the corporate plans that the game’s owner and developer Antwan (Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi) has for a lucrative sequel, leading Antwan to consider deactivating the whole platform from existence.
Further complicating this impending digital apocalypse is that “Free City” is based on a stolen game code created by Millie and her friend Keys (Joe Keery, Stanger Things). The only way she can prove the theft is by accessing the original code hidden somewhere inside “Free City” before Antwan shuts it all down. Millie’s Molotov Girl teams up with Guy to find it.
One of the many refreshing things about Free Guy is how it avoids populating its world (and cheapening its own potential) with a barrage of familiar pop culture IPs. Yes, a few brief franchise references are made (and very clever ones at that) but Free Guy isn’t fueled or propped up by them. In creating their own property, Levy and screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn are able to play in this space with exhilarating freedom while also commenting on it with actual integrity.
They do it with fun, too, crafting a satirical deconstruction of gratuitous Grand Theft Auto gaming but with a wide-eyed innocence rather than a sarcastic edge. Levy takes full advantage of the gun-play milieu, staging some silly action-packed slapstick, but then uses that as a springboard to question the inhumanity of mindless virtual violence and, more broadly, how living virtually (violent or otherwise) can dehumanize our relationships in the real world.
It’s a notion that co-screenwriter Zak Penn first explored in his screenplay adaptation for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Penn took the novel by Ernest Cline (which ennobled basement-dwelling gaming nerds into world-saving heroes) and improved it by de-objectifying VR prowess for the virtues of flesh-and-blood connection. With Free Guy, Penn evolves that notion even further (to another level, one might say), suggesting that perhaps the best form of virtual reality is the kind that inspires us to improve our actual reality rather than wantonly escape from it.
It’s an astute commentary that, in Free Guy, is never preached didactically. Instead, it’s evoked through character arcs and relationships in very earnest, meaningful ways. It’s a deft balance that can only be struck from a sincere place (anchored in Levy’s own sincerity as a storyteller) and only achieved with a persona like Ryan Reynolds’s, one that mixes snark with sentiment. Everything makes Reynolds unique is maximized here to its fullest extent, and even to a greater good.
As Millie, Jodie Comer matches Reynolds in what feels like a star-making turn. More than just her formidable screen presence, Comer actually personifies the film’s stakes with legitimate conviction. We feel them because of how deeply vital they are to her, and in how much her heart hangs in the balance. Comer is also a badass action hero with a steely no-nonsense swagger while also showing vulnerability when love complicates the equation in ways she couldn’t have expected.
As Antwan, Taika Waititi relishes his villainous turn with over-the-top zeal, and Lil Rel Howery elevates the stock best friend role with infectious joy and heartfelt humanity, but Joe Keery may be the biggest surprise, a revelation of giddy charisma and earnest passion. It’s an opportunity for Keery to showcase completely different layers than what the darker Stranger Things allows, and demonstrate just how much range he’s capable of.
Thrills and laughs come fast and in equal measure as Levy stages VFX-heavy actions scenes with surprising command and clarity. Free Guy is a fun movie to watch and experience.
It’s peppered with great cameos, too, often in voice-only if you can catch them (Hugh Jackman is the most obvious, Tina Fey, John Krasinski and Dwayne Johnson less so), but Channing Tatum offers a hilarious scene-stealing appearance as another gamer’s obnoxious avatar, the late Alex Trebek gives us one last Jeopardy! moment and, late in the film, an A-lister who’s best not spoiled pops up for a clever nod to his most beloved character.
Free Guy takes one of the more potentially corrosive obsessions of our media age (violent online gaming) and uses it as a foundation to affirm humanity and our most uplifting ideals, all while being relentlessly entertaining escapist fare on a scale worthy of a trip to the multiplex in the most premium format available. It’s a smart, hilarious, and heartwarming blockbuster that you don’t have to make any apologies or allowances for. The only thing to be sorry about is if you miss it.