As Free Guy begins, with an enthusiastically blank-faced Ryan Reynolds excitedly going through a generic and dull morning routine, things may seem familiar. The generic clothes, the coffee order, the crazy cat lady down the street…It’s The LEGO Movie all over again, in live-action.
But while Chris Pratt’s Emmet ultimately turned out to exist in the basement diorama of a dysfunctional dad, reality for Reynolds’ Guy has a much bigger construction. It’s an open-world video game, in the style of Grand Theft Auto, under the thumb of an equally petulant (but more malicious) man-child: Taika Waititi’s Antwan. Dressing and behaving in reality the way gamers normally only do as anonymous avatars in deathmatches, he’s all that’s wrong with gaming today. So why does it seem like the non-playable Guy represents everything good and right?
Suffice it to say there’s a reason that feels plausible enough in the moment. One best discovered by the viewer in due time. What matters is that Guy one day decides not to do everything quite the same as usual, beginning when he meets Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), whose, uh, wild style embodies every fantasy girlfriend quality he has ever said aloud. Day after day. Usually during the routine armed robberies at the bank where he works.
Soon, via some They Live-style sunglasses, he becomes able to see the world as gamers do. It’s full of power-ups and mission prompts, rather than the normal-looking city that appeared to him prior. And he’s determined to use this knowledge to impress the girl by doing good deeds. Meanwhile, back in the real world, he becomes a cult character among regular players, who cannot figure him out.
There’s more going on than meets the eye, of course, because no movie introduces a hammy villain like Antwan without an evil master plan. But the plot is almost secondary to the gags, as Free Guy busts out many note-perfect video game jokes along the way. Not to mention jabs at how misanthropic gamer culture can be.
Though to be clear, in reality, non-player characters actually don’t live or feel pain, and it’s not inherently sadistic to do violence to them. Perhaps there’s an argument that even unleashing that impulse, rather than a more constructive one, is a net negative. But the movie stops short of actually saying that. It’s easier to just imply that even fake characters hurt, and hurting sucks.
Director Shawn Levy is known mostly for big mainstream comedies, and to the extent that he has a style it’s either shoot and get out of the way (The Internship), or borrow from the best (Stranger Things). Here, in addition to the previously mentioned influences, he brings in a healthy dose of Dark City, Crank, and of course The Matrix. Subtlety goes out the window; this movie will show a literal wrecking ball, and then play “Wrecking Ball” on the soundtrack.
But Levy has a great and willing partner in Reynolds. The actor often takes boringly generic action movie paychecks, but comes alive playing weird characters. And his dedication to Free Guy approaches Deadpool levels, to the point that he arguably spoiled too much on his social media recently. But fear not, as there are still surprises. Good ones.
While much of the movie feels like the sum of its influences, it builds to something pretty great, as it wraps in a subplot involving programmers Millie (Comer again) and Keys (Stranger Things regular Joe Keery). And the game world gets progressively more insane. Recall that Levy at various points got attached to direct both Uncharted and Minecraft. One might suspect he dumped all the unused ideas for those in here.
It’s pretty clear Reynolds and Waititi got a lot of room to improvise, and the movie is better for it. Levy may generally not come off as an interesting director, but he’s smart enough to step back and let the weird funny guys get weird and funny in their own ways. Comer’s dual role will likely inspire more think-pieces about “Trinity Syndrome,” but both versions of her keep the story emotionally grounded.
When Free Guy tries to make its central story a universal theme, it works a little less well. “You don’t have to be a background character” feels great to say, sure. But the world needs bank tellers just as much as it needs heroes. If there’s a perfect reality where everyone can just do what they want, it does only exist in video games. The idea that good behavior will get us there rather than the selfish kind feels nice, but perhaps stays vague so as not to go too densely into philosophy or religion. Leave that to The Matrix 4.
Even in his foulest characters (Deadpool, of course; Van Wilder, and more), Reynolds has always maintained a vulnerability and sweetness that played well in contrast. Leaning into that in a regular drama might be insufferable, but leaning into it as a counterpoint to an insane, artificial world creates compelling conflict.
Free Guy opens in theaters Aug 13.
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