At its beta-basest, Free Guy is further proof that—generally—the best video game movies are never based on video game properties (every rule allows exceptions). There are 1,001 things this hybrid ode to roleplaying fantasies gets right, most of which involve the heaps of daydreamer’s heart that burst from a “non-playable character” who dares defy algorithmic coding, aka fate. Shawn Levy’s propensity for comedic blockbusters lays the foundation for a blend between Grand Theft Auto, Ready Player One, and The Lego Movie that becomes an indictment of online gaming toxicity without burdening audiences with Gamergate allegories. Better yet, writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn skewer massively multiplayer experiences while still chasing their metaphor towards one of the warmer watches of the summer, maybe even year. Two days later and my smile has yet to fade.
Ryan Reynolds stars as the blue-shirted bank teller Guy, a resident of Free City which is, in fact, a playable video game metropolis. Guy represents what’s known as a non-playable character who drinks the same coffee and enjoys the same bubble gum flavored ice cream day after day while user characters wearing sunglasses level up by committing crimes throughout Free City. He’s got a pet goldfish, a positive attitude, and his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery)—Guy lives his definition of a perfect existence until user MolotovGirl (Jodie Comer) makes him feel something unique: love. How can an NPC experience emotions and deviate from operational blueprints? That’s what coders Keys (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), plus Molotov Girl aka Millie, are tasked to answer as they monitor Guy’s evolution within a digital simulation.
Granted, Free Guy is vastly more layered as plots thicken and The Lego Movie comparisons snap into place. There’s a “Lord Business” type in Soonami CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi) who values numbers (ratings, focus groups, sales) as gospel, and “Master Builder” mysticism is thrust upon the heroes who populate Free City as demigods operated by the players with keyboards. Guy’s daily routine is interrupted by helicopter mini-guns or vault robbers blasting gold-covered AK-47s, ensuring that excitement is only ever a bored teenager’s attention span away. Don’t expect The Truman Show; Guy’s “Everything Is Awesome” energy is intense and his adventure filled with respawns, but again, the wholesomeness of the script’s positive message never evaporates. Maybe the enrapturing hope that propels Free Guy requires a bit of chosen naivety, and yet here I am using the word “delightful” with applied force.
As a direct comparison and satire of open-world MMORPGs, the script nails even the minutest detail. Behind Guy, you can watch avatars jump into the same brick wall while glitching or t-bag opponents after a headshot, as successful real-life streamers provide intercut commentary. Under the Disney umbrella, Free Guy replicates the idea of downloadable tie-in content much like Fortnite’s eleven-billion product placement skins as Guy is able to use, for example, Mega Man’s blaster or [redacted] which becomes an epic pseudo-crossover moment that benefits from an otherwise imposing behind-the-scenes monopoly (it’s fine, I’m fine). There’s legitimate questioning of Grand Theft Auto influences on underage children earning experience and high scores for road rage, larceny, and murder since Guy sets out to be the first do-gooder of Free City.
I know, the thematic resonance sounds schmaltzy and on the big, red, blinking nose—do not fret. Free Guy is as sincere as it is explosion-heavy and sinfully rewarding (on a PG-13 scale).
As an action-romance-comedy, Shawn Levy flashes a surprisingly steady balance except for Taika Waititi’s startup superboss, who means to infuriate through tech-bro egotism yet struggles to land the extreme caricature’s humor. Otherwise, Free Guy shines importance on stolen developer code, the idea of free will, and the mundanity behind NPC comfort zones meant to be upheld, not escaped. It’s a showcase for Reynolds and Jodie Comer, the latter of whom shatters a computer figment’s sentient reality while the former remains charismatically upbeat. To no shock, Reynolds’ wittiness translates even as an utterly clueless n00b who battles mercenaries sent by Antwan in custom pink-fuzzy rabbit costumes and combats existential dread with Portal guns—I didn’t expect so many canonical references? Yet the film’s loot box overflows with nostalgic treats. Nor could I predict how Lil Rel Howery would yank a tear from my ducts.
Is there low-hanging fruit plucked like the juicy, mainstream gags we’d expect? Between that avatar cameo “Flossing” in victory to the basement streamer who shouts at his mother not to touch his single special sock, you’ll never escape the stereotypes. Did I expect random asides like an indictment of America’s gun-violence problem or legitimately soulful attributions of a life worth living? Not from Free Guy, but label me a convert. Ryan Reynolds remains a superstar of our generation no matter the role, as his video game background pawn graduates from zero to hero without sacrificing morality or meaningful protests against the cruelness of Free City’s designs. From armor-plated costumes to exotic vehicles to customizable safehouses, it all looks spectacular. In a cinematic representation of video game worlds, Free Guy is unexpectedly skipping ahead to this critic’s list of favorites more than halfway through another year of theatrical releases.