Free Guy – Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkkar
**** out of ****
How long has it been since the last truly original blockbuster? We’ve become so used to a world of franchises, remakes, reboots, and adaptations that it seems like a breath of fresh air. And along comes Free Guy, a whip-smart video game satire that delivers both some of the funniest scenes of the summer and a surprisingly deep takedown of the corruption within the gaming world and big tech. And at its core is Ryan Reynolds, in his best work since he last put on the Deadpool spandex.
Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a guy who loves his life. He gets up every morning, drinks the same coffee, and goes to work as a security guard at the bank with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) – where they get robbed every single day. See, they live in Free City, a chaotic metropolis filled with explosions, car chases, and disasters caused by the mysterious “Sunglasses People”. These overpowered rogues seem to be able to do anything they want with no consequences, but Guy is unbothered. He has simple desires, like raising enough money to buy a fancy pair of sneakers (but his bank account is oddly the same every day). He also dreams of finding “the one” – who he thinks might be the mysterious Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a sunglasses-wearing visitor to Free City, who seems surprised when he interacts with her.
And when Guy puts on a pair of those distinctive sunglasses, everything changes. He sees the city as it really is – a never-ending series of opportunities for loot, weapons, and missions. That’s because Guy is an NPC in a video game, and he just got his first look at what the world looks like for the players running around Free City. And once he gets his first look, he never looks back and starts rewriting the rules of the game for himself. And first on his priority list? Finding Molotov Girl and teaming up with her again on a quest to find a secret locked within the archives of Free City.
But this is only half the story. The other half takes place in the real world, as indie game designer Millie Rusk (Comer, unrecognizable from her alter ego) fights a lonely battle against the powerful video game company Soonami. She designed an indie sandbox game in college, only to have it bought by the powerhouse, turned into a violent shooter, and was pushed off her own creation. Her partner, “Keys” (Joe Keery) reluctantly agreed to stay on and now works as a low-level coder on what was once his creation alongside his frenemy Mouser (a deadpan Utkarsh Ambudkar) as they take orders from the company’s mercurial CEO.
And that CEO is the secret weapon of Free Guy. Antwan, played by a completely unhinged Taika Waititi, is one of the funniest movie villains I can remember. Sometimes he’s an obstructive Michael Scott-esque bureaucrat. Sometimes he’s so eccentric and over the top that he almost feels like a Sasha Baron Cohen character who wandered in from another movie. And sometimes something else creeps in, something cruel and menacing that reveals he doesn’t care about anyone. Not the people he robbed, not the people who work for him, and not even the millions of players who made him rich as he plans to sunset the game and force them into buying a sequel.
One of the most impressive things about Free Guy is just how many genres it manages to cram into one relatively short movie. It works as a corporate espionage thriller with some genuinely surprising twists in the real world. Guy’s journey to move from NPC to hero is one of the best action-comedies I’ve seen in some time. The crossovers between the real world and the world of streamers and superfans is hilarious, especially when we see who’s under the avatars of some of Guy’s recurring enemies. It even works surprisingly well as a romance, as Comer’s cynical investigator finds herself falling for this unique NPC. And as the movie goes on, it takes on the tone of something close to an apocalyptic thriller. Because the sunset date is coming, and the entirety of Free City is at stake.
Free Guy shares a lot of common DNA with some of the best original movies in the modern era, especially in the way it satirizes the media and the fishbowl we all live in. In many ways, it’s the proper heir to The Truman Show and Pleasantville. It balances taking place in more than one world and timeline better than any movie since Inception. And its energetic, goofy superhero reminds me of such classic comedies like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Even when it takes a turn into an over-the-top disaster movie, it never stops being engaging. All video games need a great “Boss level”, and Free Guy surprises us with a genuinely ridiculous one featuring one of the best uses of CGI in recent memory.
Does Free Guy have any flaws? Well, after a brilliant final showdown taking place on two different planes and featuring one of the best chase scenes in movie history, there’s about five minutes that work a little too hard to tie everything up neatly. Despite being an out-of-the-box hit, Free Guy seems to have zero ambition to be a franchise. And in some ways, isn’t that the most unique thing about it?