There was a little bit of buzz surrounding the original Ryan Reynolds vehicle, Free Guy ever since it was supposed to debut back in July of 2020. It was, of course, sadly delayed two more times due to the pandemic, as all movies we’ve seen this year were. And in that timeframe, as anticipated, big blockbuster franchises from F9 to Black Widow, and A Quiet Place to The Suicide Squad, seemingly overshadowed the buzz for this one with star power and dedicated fanbases, hungry for explosive action. But after seeing it for myself, all I can say is we should have never let this one fall off our radars.
Free Guy is delightful! And in a summer chalk full of sequels and franchises (as the movie pokes fun of cheekily), it’s absolutely refreshing to get a movie that’s not based on existing IP. And one that’s completely worth the wait.
Free Guy, as I’ve previously described it, is a lot like Tron but with a bit of The Truman Show kicked in. Like the former, its premise involves two underdogs working hand in hand with a sentient program to find evidence of copyright infringement from a powerful corporation. Like the latter, it’s about finding ways to liberate the sentient program so that it can grow and evolve into its own individual being fueled by independent thought and emotion. Blend those ideas into a Grand Theft Auto-esque world with fun visuals and sight gags, and what you have absolutely feels, weirdly enough, mostly new. (I also find it ironic that the best movies about video games are those not actually based on video games, from Wreck-It Ralph and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, to Free Guy).
As stated, though the premise is about two developers trying to prove their code was stolen (the wonderful Jodi Comer and Joe Keery as Millie and Keys), the central character really is, as the title suggests, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Guy is a non-playable character (NPC) in a video game called Free City. He’s programmed to do the same thing every day, but unlike the other residents of his city, he wants to try something different. He gets his chance one day after he puts on a pair of glasses from a player, that enables him to see what actual players see within the game: Health packs, money, equipment, weapons, etc. This ultimately allows Guy to take control of his life and his world. He falls for Molotov Girl, an avatar of Comer’s character Millie. And she ultimately teams up with him to try and expose Antwan (Taika Waitit), the man who stole her code and bought her and her business partner/friend Keys out of their independent video game company.
Even though Free Guy‘s premise is something of a play on the first Tron‘s plotline, it still feels pretty fresh. And I think it’s because the world building is expansive and engaging, and the clever plotline and story support its endearing characters. We’ve played video games like GTA before, but we’ve never seen them from the point of view of a character like Guy. And Reynolds puts on this optimistic naivety that makes you completely love him like an innocent toddler. His character believes in doing good things in a world that exists solely for people to destroy and create chaos. And that makes him such a fantastic character for today’s world. Guy is the perfect foil/hero to the cynicism that can easily be seen in dour times like today; where all it takes to see the worst of humanity is to go on Twitter and search for “#Trump” or turn on Fox News. Reynolds is funny and charming in the most “Ryan Reynolds” way. Does he stretch his range? Of course not. But he doesn’t need to with a character so perfectly tailor made for him (actually he may or may not play two characters, but I’ll let you discover that on your own).
However, the fantastic performances don’t stop at just Reynolds. Comer is a force to be reckoned with here too, as we all knew she would be given how brilliant she is in Killing Eve. She’s sweet, smart, tough, and engaging. Her character could have easily been written off as just the love interest or the eye candy. But she’s much more than that. She’s essentially the central human character of the story, and it’s her drive and persistence, and dedication to her art that makes you (and Guy and Keys) love her. She’s also a freaking badass in so many action sequences. I need her to do more movies (Petition: Marvel Studios cast her as Sue Storm in Fantastic Four!). Alongside Comer is Keery’s earnest and likable coder, Keys. Keery has this “aw shucks” underdog sincerity to him that makes you root for him the same way we root for characters like Milo Thatch from Atlantis or Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. He’s also very believable as a conflicted genius coder that Antwan relies on heavily as his second in command. He’s come a long way from his Steve Harrington days on Stranger Things.
As far as side performances go, Lil Rel Howery and Utkarsh Ambudkar are really great as Buddy and Mouser. Buddy is Guy’s best friend in Free City, and Howery gives him so much heart and humor that you want him to be your best friend. He gives a great speech about existentialism in the last act of the movie that’s absolutely winning, and proves to you that Howery can do more than just crack jokes — he can warm your heart! Ambudkar is also terrific as Mouser, Keys’ partner at Antwan’s company. He’s smarmy and funny, and works very well with Keery, despite not having as much to do as the other players.
In addition to the performances, Free Guy also boasts some side splitting scenes. The script is light and funny, and the lines are clever, but it also lovingly pokes fun at gamer culture without ever being mean or condescending. Additionally many of the laughs come from well used cameos. In the world of filmmaking, cameos need to be used wisely, or they can come off pointless and gratuitous (see: Space Jam: A New Legacy or Zoolander 2). But Free Guy knows how to use them brilliantly and weaves the use of these cameos into the narrative, but also uses them sparingly, in such a way that they don’t overshadow the charm of the characters and lead actors, but also surprise you pleasantly. The visuals are also fantastic in this one, as everything in Free City looks perfectly rendered for the GTA ambiance it’s going for. In some ways it reminded me of the 2015 visuals from Back to the Future Part II. It’s amazing what you can do with a reasonable budget and proper context.
I also really loved the themes of individualism and the idea that even the most minor characters should matter in society. How each person in the world has the capacity to do good things, and how living our day to day lives is enough purpose for all of us to have in this insane world. It’s a bright message and the right message for today’s anything-but-sane circumstances.
On the more negative side of the film, there were only two things in the movie I wasn’t a big fan of: 1.) any and all romantic subplots, and 2.) as much as it kills me to say this, Taika’s performance as Antwan. Let’s start with the first. As much as I do love the characters of Keys and Millie in the film, there’s a whole “unrequited love from the nice guy over an oblivious girl” cliché that just feels dated — and the only part that does in a movie that feels really new. I mean we’re living in the times of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman now. These sorts of cliches should be dead.
Now it’s not something that quite falls into the “Nice Guy” trope, since Keys’ main objectives in the movie aren’t to win over Millie. But it’s definitely something we’ve seen numerous times, and their chemistry, while not detestable from a romantic standpoint, could have also been 100% fine as a platonic relationship. It just seemed like something that was a bit unnecessarily forced in for the romcom fans going to see this movie.
Second, Taika’s performance was a bit too much for me. Waititi is a comedy genius. No one can rob him of that title. And he does generate a lot of laughs here just by being Taika Waititi. However, the character of Antwan is way too cartoony and over-the-top in this movie, that it feels a bit out of place tonally. The movie is a comedy, and there are moments that are really fantastical. But those fantastical moments are reserved for the game environment itself, rather than the real world scenes. So it really doesn’t make sense to have a walking cartoon in the real world scenes. I think people in general love Waititi’s performance in this, and I get why. The energy is incredible. But frankly it just didn’t do it for me, and took me out of the movie a lot. Having said that, those are really the only two nitpicks I have about an otherwise excellent movie.
Free Guy is an absolute fun, funny, and fantastic charmer. The performances and clever writing keep things very fresh. And its optimism is simply irresistible. I just had this goofy smile on my face from ear to ear for two hours straight. Trust me when I say this: Free Guy is the movie you want in your life right now, and you didn’t even know you needed it. It’s a sweet sweet fantasy, baby! And as I said in my social reaction post for the site, it truly is the biggest surprise of the summer!
Overall Score: A-
Free Guy hits theaters on August 13.