2021, PG-13, 115 min. Directed by Shawn Levy. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Taika Waititi.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Aug. 13, 2021
If the internet is to be believed, the first teaser for Free Guy premiered in October 2019 as part of that year’s New York Comic Con celebration. Many, many things have happened between now and then, but the marketing for the film has endured, offering us a Ryan Reynolds-shaped rainbow at the end of our global pandemic. Now, for better or worse, Free Guy is finally playing (only) in theatres this weekend – and somehow this oft-delayed comedy about video games has earned its spot as the best summer movie of 2021.
As a non-player character in the popular sandbox game Free City, Guy (Reynolds) is an artificial intelligence who values his routine. But when an encounter with renegade gamer Molotov Girl (Comer) interrupts his meticulous programming, Guy begins to experience the world around him through the eyes of a player for the very first time. With the help of his best friend Buddy (Howery) – and a little manipulation from game designer Walter McKeys (Keery) – Guy sets out on a mission to change the world around him for the better and win the heart of the woman he loves.
Ever since Deadpool muscled its way out of production purgatory, Reynolds has leaned heavily into his brand of metatextual man-children. One of the many surprises of Free Guy is how well Reynolds and director Shawn Levy improve on this well-established persona. Guy is a beacon of hope and happiness in a chaotic world (think Ted Lasso spawned into the world of Grand Theft Auto) and this approach allows Reynolds to move a step beyond the Wade Wilsons and Michael Bryces of his career. Stripped of his signature cynicism, Reynolds proves that his charisma goes far beyond his creative use of profanity.
As a result, Free Guy deserves to be considered alongside late-Nineties movies like Pleasantville and Dark City, films that deconstructed our reality and asked us to embrace the underlying tenets of our humanity. Setting aside a miserable performance by Taika Waititi – who seems to regard the film as the half-hearted joke we all assumed it would be – Free Guy is an earnest exploration of humanity’s responsibility toward its progeny. The world of video game design becomes the perfect playground to ask ourselves what it means to be human – and how far we’d be willing to go to ensure the future of those who follow after us.
And while Free Guy offers a few too-cute cameos and nods to Twitch culture, the writers and director wisely elect to look inward to find a story worth caring about. This is no Ernest Cline novel; our emotional connection to the world and its characters goes far beyond the level of pop culture references. Free Guy takes the time to create something unique and grounded and make us care about the future of these NPCs. With every reason in the world to fail, Free Guy succeeds. It’s a welcome reminder that sincerity can still play as the basis for a Hollywood blockbuster.