NOTE: “Free Guy” is currently available to view in theatres here in North America, and elsewhere in the world wherever theatres are permitted to be open. When possible, we recommend that anyone without a full COVID-19 vaccination watch movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Free Guy” is based on a theatrical viewing.
Modern video games are filled with characters. Not just the ones you play as either. The majority of video games also happen to be populated by ‘NPC’s’, or, ‘non-player characters’, passive in-game personalities that engage the player with advice, rewards, mission tasks, or anything else that might make a game world feel more alive and engrossing. Considering the increased emphasis on player choice throughout modern gaming as well, NPC’s can also be abused, exploited or otherwise griefed in any number of ways, depending on the game in question. That’s fair enough, I suppose. After all, an NPC is not actually a living entity. Free Guy however dares to ask the question; What if an NPC did become self-aware?
That’s the elevator pitch behind Disney’s and 20th Century Studios’ surprisingly original late Summer blockbuster. Not based on any specific game, or any pre-existing IP in general, Free Guy is a wholly original idea from writer-producer, Matt Lieberman, entering development some years before 20th Century Studios was acquired by Disney. The project then found its way to Deadpool star, Ryan Reynolds, who also entered into a producer role on top of headlining Free Guy, thus allowing the project to be greenlit, even around the then-imminent Disney-Fox merger. Surprisingly though, that landmark merger wouldn’t be the main issue stalling Free Guy’s release. That would instead be the COVID-19 pandemic, which ended up delaying Free Guy just over a year from its originally planned Summer 2020 release window.
Now that it’s finally here though, Free Guy contributes a very welcome original Summer blockbuster to the big screen in 2021, and better still is that it’s a legitimately good movie! Granted, it isn’t all that complex. Free Guy’s foundational underdog story has been told and retold across much of cinema for the better part of a century, only this time with a dash of The Truman Show mixed alongside the hook of Ready Player One, and topped with a glaze of open-world video game tropes, from Grand Theft Auto to Saints Row to Cyberpunk 2077. If you’re intimidated at the prospect of having to know your MMORPG’s from your open-world sandboxes however, rest assured that Free Guy requires no prior knowledge of video games or the video game industry to enjoy. There are still plenty of clever in-jokes and sly references for gamers and nerds in general to spot and lap up with glee, but Free Guy’s wholesome tale of a rogue A.I. trying to give his preset life meaning is so charming and well-executed that even viewers who have never picked up a controller in their lives will find it easy to enjoy and relate to.
Free Guy is front-loaded by a very lovable lead cast, led by the aforementioned Ryan Reynolds as wayward NPC, Blue Shirt Guy, or just, “Guy” for short. A relentlessly positive, upbeat bank teller, Guy’s coding makes him happy, fulfilled and always in a good mood to his fellow citizens in the world of Free City, which, unbeknownst to him and every other virtual citizen, is an online video game. Human players in this game world are differentiated by their coloured glasses, which supply their HUD elements (in case you don’t know, a ‘HUD’, or ‘Heads-Up Display’ is gamer speak for all of the prompts, meters and directional waypoints you often see on a video game screen), something that Guy accidentally discovers after deciding to break from his usual routine, read: programming loop.
Suddenly confronted with a peek behind the curtain of his own existence, Guy thus becomes determined to find new meaning in his life. This primarily comes by way of following Jodie Comer’s online avatar, MolotovGirl, who is controlled by struggling programmer, Millie Rusk. Comer portrays both Millie and MolotovGirl, mainly using a dark wig and simple adventuring gear to differentiate her online avatar, as she hunts for evidence of foul play within Free City. Said foul play is supposedly hidden in Free City’s code by the movie’s antagonist, Antwan, played in a rare villainous turn by Taika Waititi, who turns his innate weirdness up to eleven as a moustache-twirling video game executive that’s in it purely for fame and profit at any cost, and almost proudly steps on anything and anyone that gets in the way of that shady mission.
As much as Reynolds and Waititi effortlessly steal attention with their appealingly goofy personas, it’s Comer that proves to be the surprising standout in Free Guy. Wrangling a dual role with aplomb, Comer manages to capture both hard-nosed cynicism and surprisingly vulnerable enthusiasm, creating a surprisingly clever divide between an avatar that’s always in control of the situation, versus a real person that’s seemingly in over her head when it comes to Millie’s quest to topple Antwan, and his fictional gaming corporation, Soonami, an apparent parody of a certain longstanding online role-playing game’s real-world purveyor. On that note in fact, the recent reckoning at Soonami’s likely real-world inspiration only makes Free Guy feel all the more prescient and relevant in 2021.
Rounding out Free Guy’s lead cast is Stranger Things’ Joe Keery as put-upon Soonami programmer, Walter “Keys” McKeys, reuniting with director, Shawn Levy after his directing work on that popular Netflix series. Keery is meant to serve as a victim and eventual nemesis to Waititi’s Antwan, as well as the one reliable human connection that Comer’s Millie has maintained in the real world. There’s supposed to be a bit of a twist between Millie and Keys and their history as friends and colleagues as well, but it isn’t exactly well disguised, even if it does make a commendable effort to round off Guy’s own central character arc on a bit of an unexpected note.
Still, Free Guy’s cast is universally appealing, and they all get plenty of moments to shine. They also happen to be further complemented by some brilliant, well-disguised actor cameos (and a couple of obvious ones before and during the climax!), with beloved performers like Hugh Jackman, John Krasinski and Tina Fey hiding as their own amusing Easter eggs in obscured bit parts. When it comes down to it, even when Free Guy gets a little predictable, its performers are all infectiously charming, despite Reynolds, Keery and Comer doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of performance depth. Most of the movie’s personalities may be pretty simplified and wholesome in the end, including Waititi’s supposed executive villain, but there’s certainly something to be said about doing the simple stuff well.
As I mentioned, Free Guy’s underdog story isn’t exactly unfamiliar to the movie space. Nonetheless, the clever layering of so many original concepts atop its foundational story makes Free Guy feel like a very refreshing switch from so many franchise blockbusters. It’s not often that we get a wholly original movie with such high-profile exposure, least of all with a video game theme that Hollywood is still somewhat struggling to properly leverage, particularly in direct video game adaptations. Still, it seems that Free Guy is a welcome anomaly in the face of your usual Hollywood crop, being both a genuinely good video game-themed movie, as well as a genuinely original major cinematic release.
Better still is the fact that you don’t need to be a gamer to enjoy Free Guy, even though non-gamers in particular will probably scratch their heads at some of Free City’s seemingly shifting logic. It’s also apparent that Free Guy’s comedic momentum tends to sag in a few places, most notably during the second act, which more blatantly goes through the motions of Hollywood’s age-old underdog stories, as Guy begins to more openly pursue his quest for validation and fulfillment, as well as the approval of Jodie Comer’s MolotovGirl. At worst, some may wish for a movie that had just a bit more bite to its story of a newly-self-aware A.I. within a comically hostile video game world, rather than this candy-coated, kid-friendly yarn that one would expect to retroactively fit right in with the Disney movie catalogue.
Free Guy’s narrative isn’t always able to fully embrace the unexpected, but when it does, it proves to be a surprisingly novel take on a person, even a virtual person, suddenly being confronted with an existential crisis, one that only deepens as the movie goes on. Even then though, Guy’s positivity and motivation carry him through a journey with perpetually rising stakes and implications, eventually leading to the expected fight to preserve Free City itself, as Guy’s influence starts to gradually free it from its corporate string-pullers. In that sense, Guy almost appears to appropriate and master video game melodrama through his growth as a character, while simultaneously managing to marry said growth with a straightforward, but nonetheless evocative feel-good Hollywood romp. Sure, Free Guy’s plot may not be all that complex in the end, but it is both inspiring and fun, and audiences of all ages and gaming pedigrees will easily be able to invest in Guy’s journey to full sentience.
Free Guy is directed by Shawn Levy, best known for his previous work directing 20th Century Studios’ Night at the Museum trilogy. Levy has proven himself to be very capable at realizing a family-friendly veneer atop an otherwise gritty, unsettling premise, something he’s also achieved by directing several episodes of Netflix’s mega-hit adolescent horror series, Stranger Things, as well as another rare original blockbuster from 2011, Real Steel. Levy is a perfect fit for Free Guy’s director’s chair as well, keeping the journey of Ryan Reynolds’ Guy lovable and fun, even when it explores some potentially challenging territory surrounding what defines consciousness, and how one should ideally cope with an existential meltdown.
Under Levy’s direction, everyone on the set of Free Guy is clearly enjoying themselves, and that further contributes to the movie’s positive energy. The actors are allowed to get a little silly, particularly Ryan Reynolds and Taika Waititi, who predictably serve as comedic high points, with both performers being beautifully complemented by Jodie Comer and Joe Keery as their respective straight people. Levy particularly seems to enjoy directing Free Guy’s visual gags and gaming winks as well, enthusiastically diving into the nitty-gritty of Free City and its sometimes eccentric coding.
Even when Levy really lets fly with the absurd world of Free City however, he never loses sight of this movie’s heart. Free Guy always remains focused on the personal journey of its NPC protagonist, Guy, both what it means for human society in the real world, and what it means for Guy in trying to discover meaning in his newly-unleashed artificial life. Perhaps the biggest credit to Levy’s direction (and Ryan Reynolds’ performance) is that Guy always feels like a legitimately human presence, even when he’s obviously supposed to be a computer program. This adds a surprising tenderness to Free Guy’s more emotional and introspective moments, one that isn’t always universally consistent, but does always manage to keep this movie’s heart firmly in the right place.
Free Guy’s poppy, sugary soundtrack stands as a fairly amusing contrast to its otherwise comically violent, amoral game world. The cornerstone of Free Guy’s soundtrack also happens to be Mariah Carey’s beloved single, “Fantasy”, which was all over this movie’s marketing, and even plays a key role in its storyline. It might be a bit surprising to hear Christophe Beck’s score shirking the obvious route of a more bombastic or MIDI-flavoured music suite, the themes that your mind would inevitably go to upon hearing Free Guy’s premise, but the likable, upbeat music that does pepper the movie nonetheless feels like a good fit. There are some pretty good nerd-tickling moments in Free Guy’s soundtrack as well, most notably those that borrow some obvious musical flourishes from certain other fan-favourite Disney-owned movies.
The rest of Free Guy’s audio design steps things up with a bit more of a focus on destruction, albeit over-the-top, blatantly cartoon-ish destruction. The movie’s sound mixing feels almost deliberately overpowering in some scenes, despite its otherwise fluffy soundtrack, perhaps to illustrate how frequently hostile and unpredictable the fictional Free City game world can be for its programmed denizens. This audio direction certainly doesn’t hurt in the action scenes either, which land with more punch than you would probably expect in an otherwise light-hearted story. Still, the audio in Free Guy is easy to hum and tap along with overall, while simultaneously making you feel the pain and humiliation that logically spawns from a game world populated almost exclusively by young online sociopaths.
Free Guy’s visuals can look almost intentionally tacky at times, but its over-arching world is nonetheless loaded with standout comedic imagination. The movie intentionally plays with the limits of the uncanny valley throughout Free City’s world, particularly in scenes that suddenly zoom out to the perspective of its human players. Even when you’re entirely immersed in the game world itself though, there are times where the camera seems almost intentionally unfocused and unpredictable, as if creating its own subtle sense of programming hiccups that frequently pervade most any open-world or online game in the real world. Of course, it’s also possible that the sometimes awkward camera focus could be a byproduct of the fact that Free Guy seems to be blatantly designed for a 3D presentation, one that wasn’t made available in my area, and I admit, this did make me feel like I was missing something with the eye-popping visual beats.
Even if, like me, you’re forced to watch Free Guy flat in 2D though, the movie is still punctuated by a vibrant, eye-catching visual suite. Its visual gags are also pretty strong, especially those that deliberately call back to goofy action movies, a source that open-world video games do tend to borrow from in real life. Free Guy’s budget obviously doesn’t quite hit the dizzying highs of major Disney blockbusters in established franchises though, and that’s before considering the times where the movie seems to want to look gaudy and absurd on purpose. It’s no doubt part of a subtle joke behind frequently over-produced, yet brainless offerings that too often populate the modern triple-A video game space in our own world. Even when it looks intentionally silly however, Free Guy remains fairly polished in terms of its visual design. I just wish I could have seen it in 3D to get the most out of its in-your-face visual flourishes.
Free Guy is the perfect movie to wind down 2021’s Summer season with. Even after that, it stands as a surprisingly original blockbuster that continues to nudge Hollywood forward when it comes to mastering the art of video game-themed filmmaking. Ryan Reynolds’ Guy will quickly capture your heart and elevate your spirits, regardless of whether you have any history with or passion for video games, and his wholesome appeal naturally lends itself to becoming the anchor of a new Disney franchise going forward. That does admittedly feel a bit dirty to say after I just finished praising Free Guy for its surprising originality, but even when considering the prospect of potential sequels, Free Guy’s fresh novelty feels like the perfect antidote to an often backwards, nostalgia-baiting blockbuster movie market.
Free Guy’s eventual release timing couldn’t be better to boot, not just because of the mass upheaval the video game industry is currently facing after so much bad corporate behaviour has come to light this year, but also because the mentally exhausting COVID-19 pandemic has primed moviegoing audiences for exactly the kind of feel-good cinematic odyssey that Free Guy thrives as. There may be some missed opportunities when it comes to going deeper or biting harder on Free Guy’s themes of self-actualization and creativity-versus-capitalism, but it’s tough to argue with just how damn likable Free Guy is. Considering how much the world has suffered of late, we could use some likability.
- Lovable lead cast, particularly Reynolds and Comer
- Engaging, wholesome direction throughout
- Clever video game satire that's still funny for non-gamers
- Some story beats are a little too predictable
- Comedic momentum sags in the second act