FREE GUY (2021)

free guy (2021)
A bank teller discovers that he's actually an NPC inside a brutal, open world video game.
3 out of 5 stars

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller working in an outrageously dangerous city full of gun-toting hoodlums, helicopter gunships, and HALO-dropping mercenaries armed with bazookas. This backdrop of chaos and violence doesn’t phase affable Guy, however, as it’s just another ordinary day from his perspective, and that’s because he’s unwittingly a “Non-Playable Character” (NPC) inside a Grand Theft Auto-style video game. But Guy’s existence takes on new meaning when he gains sentience after falling in love with a player called ‘Molotov Girl’ (Jodie Comer), which leads to all manner of complications in both cyberspace and the real world beyond…

Ever since Deadpool (2016) rejuvenated his career, Ryan Reynolds has parlayed that success into comedies that are mostly variations on that film’s snarky formula, playing characters who are similarly motormouthed or where meta-comedy is the key appeal for young media-savvy audiences. Free Guy is in the latter camp, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek nods to gaming and pop culture (including a few Marvel and Star Wars gags, as the film’s now owned by Disney after they bought 20th Century Fox). There’s less of Reynolds breaking the fourth wall, which I’m happy about because it’s started to feel like he’s been playing a mask-less Deadpool in too many recent roles. In fact, by his character’s own nature, this movie’s about Guy coming to realise there even exists a fourth wall to break.

Much has been made that Free Guy is an “original movie” untethered to existing intellectual property. It’s also neither a sequel or reboot—which is increasingly rare for blockbusters where studios sink millions into production and want to reduce their risk of a profitable return. While this is true and undoubtedly refreshing, the film obviously leans heavily into gaming culture and various tropes, while Matt Lieberman (The Addams Family) and Zak Penn’s (X-Men 2) screenplay is a patchwork of other films sewed together.

There’s a bit of Groundhog Day (1993) in how Guy’s life is a monotonous loop that resets whenever he dies; a lot of The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999) in how Guy is awakened to the shocking truth of his own existence; a bit of Ready Player One (2018) in the narrative split between the real and virtual world’s storylines; and even a dash of They Live (1988) when Guy dons a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden world of flashing messages and animated icons the human players use to navigate his city. Free Guy’s many influences don’t detract too much, luckily, as it’s enough of its own thing for these inspirations to feel like tasty ingredients in a recipe that’s been cooked differently. It avoids being a dull retread of those better films mashed together, which comes as a big relief.

There are actually two stories happening in Free Guy, although the most entertaining takes place in the virtual world of Free City because it’s amusing to imagine a background character in a video game suddenly taking it upon themselves to be a big hero and clean up the streets. The real-world storyline was always going to struggle in comparison, although it does add a level of Black Mirror-style anxiety once ‘Molotov Girl’ is revealed to be a programmer called Millie (Comer) who co-created a failed game with her friend Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) that’s likely the basis for Free City’s code before it was stolen by obnoxious publisher Antoine (Taika Waititi). There’s actually a lot more going on in the real-world’s plot, but it’s also fair to say the quirky virtual romance between Millie’s avatar Molotov Girl and Guy is more appealing and interesting than the unrequited love story between Millie and Keys — which plays into the climax to such an extent the emotional peak of Free Guy is a little fudged.

In terms of thrilling action sequences, Free Guy has a decent handful, although there aren’t too many that stand out. I enjoyed a foot chase through the levels of a high-rise, where two “cops” (i.e. programmers trying to eliminate Guy) use their ‘God Mode’ to bend the structure to their will in order to gain the upper hand. A later sequence in a car tearing down a street that’s being squashed together by buildings is also quite tense. There’s always something visually fun happening on screen, even with many background jokes of player characters walking into walls or pointlessly jumping on the spot. Free Guy doesn’t let its VFX overload the story, either, as you’re always more engaged by Reynolds and Comer than the intentionally overblown CGI.

Speaking of Jodie Comer, this is her English actress’s first big movie role after winning an Emmy for her performance in Killing Eve, and she does a great job in a dual role. She’s always been good at accents, which comes in handy here, but she’s also great at differentiating girl-next-door Millie with her fantasy action heroine ‘Molotov Girl’. I’d have liked to have seen more cool action with Comer as the focus (wearing a costume that’s sure to be cosplayed a lot now), but it’s surely only a matter of time before Marvel snap her up to play Sue Storm in Fantastic Four or something.

The supporting players are all decent, particularly Joe Keery (Stranger Things), although it’s a shame the story fails to make his character’s love story half as interesting as the virtual one between Guy and Millie. Taika Waititi is extremely annoying as Antoine, which is the intention, but there are moments when the character’s broadness feels like a hindrance. I’d have liked to feel genuine menace from him as the villain, but they decided to instead go for someone who’s driven by greed and thinks he’s cooler than he is. 

Overall, Free Guy has an enticing premise and two likable performances from Reynolds and Comer, which is half the battle of a high-concept action-comedy. There’s also a nice theme of people who melt into the background finding the courage to step forward and take life by the scruff of the neck. Free Guy may end up feeling a little undercooked and has a slightly disappointing resolution to the emotional arc of lovelorn Guy, but there are enough creative set-pieces, surprise cameos, and silly jokes to make it go down nicely. But it feels like they shot something a few drafts away from being something special, as there’s a sluggish middle and a feeling that some great opportunities weren’t embraced. Still, the appeal of a summer movie that isn’t a sequel and tells a self-contained story can’t be underestimated in this day and age, so I found Free Guy entertaining if unexceptional.

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USA CANADA | 2021 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider - 20th century studios

Cast & Crew

director: Shawn Levy.
writers: Matt Lieberman & Zack Penn (story by Matt Lieberman).
starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudk, Joe Keery & Taika Waititi.

https://youtu.be/Fq0-2tT8aFQ
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