If you’re wondering why your brain keeps telling itself that the latest Ryan Reynolds action-comedy flick, Free Guy already came out last year, trust us, you’re far from alone in making that mistake. Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy’s fish-out-of-water take on what happens when the virtual world of videogames crosses streams with real life was first unveiled via its debut theatrical trailer back in December 2019, a full seven months before its original July 3rd, 2020 release date.
Obviously COVID-19 had other plans, and long story short, Free Guy has finally “gone gold” 13 months later, now slated to arrive “only in theatres” on August 13th. So, after such a long wait and a couple of shamelessly tongue-in-cheek, Ryan Reynolds-fueled MCU Deadpool and Xbox promotional stunts aside, is Free Guy worth checking out in cinemas on Day One, or is it better to just wait for it to show up on the Xbox Game Pass of movies, a.k.a. Netflix?
The film centres on the titular Guy (Reynolds), an optimistic, mild-mannered bank clerk who loves his predictable button-down life in the otherwise chaotically violent metropolis that is Free City, and just like almost all of its citizens, he’s blissfully unaware that he’s actually a non-player-character NPC in a videogame. For some unknown reason however, Guy still longs for something more, and strangely it isn’t to avoid being physically assaulted or killed by the random assortment of armed bank robbers who show up every day like clockwork to knock his workplace over.
Guy’s obsession, naturally, is the girl of his dreams, whom although he has yet to meet, Buddy, his security guard co-worker and best friend, supportively assures him that she’s out there, somewhere. Coincidentally, that very afternoon while walking home from work, Guy and Buddy cross paths with THE girl, a literal, pistol-toting femme-fatale with a penchant for humming Guy’s favorite song, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy”.
“Anyone who has seen the marketing or trailers for Free Guy will know that the film is intended to be a rom-com at heart…”
Guy is immediately smitten with her, but there’s a complication. The woman, whose name we soon come to learn is MolotovGirl, is wearing sunglasses, designating her as one of the elite, superpowered citizens to which the laws of society and reality do not apply. Undaunted, Guy decides to walk over and speak to her, an action leading to a series of events that ultimately places a pair of sunglasses into Guy’s hands, and it is with the power and knowledge granted to him by said eyewear that Guy begins to unravel the illusion of Free City to discover what and who he really is.
Anyone who has seen the marketing or trailers for Free Guy will know that the film is intended to be a rom-com at heart with splashes of colorful, goofball action, thus it should surprise no one that the overall story is fated to unfold in a predictable way that doesn’t disrupt the paradigm of your average date flick. To its credit however, the film also does a pretty good job of balancing its comedy and romance threads without completely throwing logic out the window as many other videogame-themed films sharing the same premise (e.g., TRON: Legacy and Wreck-It-Ralph) tend to do.
The subplot surrounding failed indie game programmers and former work partners Millie (a.k.a. MolotovGirl, played by Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer) and Keys (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery) as they search for evidence of their original game’s code hidden somewhere in Free City, the blockbuster, triple-A game that allegedly stole it, grounds the film’s otherwise preposterous narrative into a version of reality that just about any viewer can swallow, gamer or not. I’m not sure about Guy and Millie kissing though!
Meanwhile, Taika Waititi’s villainous turn as millionaire game director Antwan as he struggles to destroy said evidence in the lead-up to the release of Free City’s impending sequel is hilariously on point, not to mention eerily clairvoyant in how it pre-emptively savages (in a light humored way) several of the infamous gaming-industry practices that would be exposed in the year following the film’s completion (namely crunch, power harassment, and of course, the entire Cyberpunk 2077 debacle).
Note that I haven’t mentioned Ryan Reynolds much, and that’s largely because his role as Guy in Free Guy is just “meh”, despite the fact that there are no performances from any the supporting cast that otherwise stand out. Waititi gets close, but anyone who has seen him perform in Jojo Rabbit — which he also directed – know that the New Zealand actor is capable of so much more, given that he has managed to make even one of history’s most reprehensible people somewhat likeable). The problem is that Reynolds, who is also an accomplished actor who can actually act (see Buried if you need proof) essentially comes off as Deadpool-lite in Free Guy.
As much as I enjoyed the overall movie and realize that it probably would never have been made were it not for the success of the Deadpool films, Reynold’s current 4th-wall breaking public persona and the Marvel character that he himself elevated to pop-culture icon status are now all but synonymous, seemingly permeating any other comedic roles that he takes on, including Guy, who as a character is not written strongly enough to exist on his own. Guy is supposed to be virginally naïve about his existence as an NPC, but his voice, narration, jokes and occasional profanity all drip with Deadpool’s trademark sarcasm, which even viewers who know nothing about the Merc With A Mouth will be able to detect just by tone alone (Reynolds is Canadian after all). It’s all well and good during the inevitable scenes and montages in which Guy “levels up” as he learns to “game” the system, but in those quieter moments when Guy is meant to create meaningful, true bonds with his best friend Buddy (Get Out’s Lil Rey Howery) or share a romantic moment with Millie, Reynolds’s emotional, heart-felt whispers can’t help but come off as anything but annoyingly insincere.
Despite all that, Free Guy still manages to save itself with the comedically accurate sendup of the open-world videogame genre that Free City represents, the name of the in-game city itself an obvious reference to Liberty City from Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto franchise. Throughout the film observant players will catch countless, slyly-placed references (both subtle and overt) to other videogames and films, as well as trends and systemic problems largely found in open-world games.
These frequent, clever winks to gamers in the audience, such as player characters constantly walking up against walls, users griefing other players or NPCs, pro-gamers trying to exploit bugs to glitch into places that they shouldn’t be, and even incomplete code in parts of the game all play nicely into the film’s plot and comedic bits. In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed Free Guy even more had it been 20 minutes longer and dared to lean into it its premise even further to mine more story potential, especially during a pair of early scenes that crib heavily from Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, but admittedly that would have resulted in a more ponderous film than either Levy or Reynolds were intending to make.