A film review by Craig J. Koban August 24, 2021


2021, PG-13, 115 mins.

Ryan Reynolds as Guy  /  Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl  /  Lil Rel Howery as Buddy  /  Joe Keery as Keys  /  Taika Waititi as Antoine  /  Utkarsh Ambudkar as Mouser

Directed by Shawn Levy  /  Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn




FREE GUY thinks it's funnier and smarter than it actual is as both an offbeat romantic comedy and satire of video game lore and culture.  Baring a striking amount of almost plagiaristic similarities (at least in its opening sections) to THE LEGO MOVIE, this Shawn Levy (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) directed affair imagines the vast and unimaginably huge world within a video game that's played by people the world over and shows us what life is like for a NPC (or nonplayer character) when he becomes self aware of his reality.  This basic premise has been done before, to be fair (see THE TRUMAN SHOW or, at least as far as gaming is concerned, the nearly forgotten about GAMER from a decade-plus ago), but FREE GUY benefits from a spirited and likeable cast and a whole lot of visual razzle dazzle on screen.  As far as cutting edge and sharply hilarious satires go, though, this one kind of lacks nerve and innovation, not to mention that its commentary on the modern gaming milieu is pretty pedestrian at best. 

This is also yet another Ryan Reynolds starring affair having the actor in pure Ryan Reynolds-ian mode (after DEADPOOL, this guy may never be able to break out of this typecast) playing Guy, a lowly bank teller that resides in Free City, and his life could not be anymore mundane.  Every day is pathetically the same: He gets up, feeds his fish, puts on the exact same outfit, goes to work, awaits a daily bank robbery, goes home...rinse and repeat.  What poor Guy doesn't realize, however, is that he's a go-nowhere NPC that resides within the larger game world of Free City.  Like every other ordinary sad sack, Guy wants to break free of the shackles of his soul crushing life, and he's granted this opportunity with the appearance of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), one of the many "sunglass people" super heroes that populate Free City and seem destined for greatness.  After he starts to follow and befriend her, Guy finds himself in possession of the very glasses that make her great, which, when put on, utterly changes his whole perception of reality and grants him special abilities and powers well beyond normal NPCs.  He essentially begins to the play the game from within, learning how to segue from being a nobody NPC to a popular and meaningful protagonist. 

The other half of FREE GUY takes place in the real world and introduces us to Millie (also Comer), who plays Free City via her game avatar in Molotov Girl (alongside countless other players), but her mission to obsessively play has a purpose.  Millie and her friend in Keys (STRANGER THINGS' Joe Keery) are up and coming game developers and programmers that came up with a state of the art and potentially revolutionary AI that they believe was stolen by Soonami Games and their CEO, Antoine (Taika Waititi).  Millie and Keys think that proof of the theft lies within the Free City game itself, where they think Antoine has placed their AI code in.  Keys works on the inside at Soonami Games, where Millie is on the outside looking in, playing the game and looking for her code with help from Keys on the inside.  While all of this is happening, gamers everywhere are beginning to take notice of Guy, with many thinking that a human hacker has taken control of and freed him from his NPC status.  Millie and Keys know better and grow to understand that Guy is proof that their learning AI works, meaning that computer generated characters can become self-aware and masters of their own destiny. 



An awful lot of FREE GUY reminded me of the aforementioned GAMER, which was a futuristic sci-fi thriller that featureded a massive online multiplayer shooter game of tomorrow where human players can control other nanite controlled human avatar characters.  Now, FREE GUY is definitely much more light weight in tone than this Neveldine and Taylor helmed effort, but the core dynamics of both are kind of the same.  If anything, FREE GUY appropriates the mischievous spirit and concept of THE LEGO MOVIE: Both films contain average schmoes turned heroes that both wake up to painfully routine rituals every day and later begin to have their eyes opened as to what their existence actually entails.  Many out there are commenting on the freshness of approach of FREE GUY, but it's pretty derivative and seems like a mishmash of other better films that have come before it (there's also a smattering of THE MATRIX mixed in here with GAMER, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and THE LEGO MOVIE). 

That's not to say that FREE GUY doesn't have fun with its premise.  The massive budget is most assuredly on-screen here when it comes to Levy deep diving viewers into the GRAND THEFT AUTO-esque Free City, and hard core gamers will appreciate all of the little (and not so little) odes to gaming lore (when Guy is "awakened" he sees health packs bouncing up and down on the ground, not to mention currency laying around to be picked up to buy upgrades to make himself more powerful and super human).  FREE GUY generates some modest interest in exploring Guy partaking in his early missions as a free man, learning the ropes of becoming a force of nature while impressing Molotov Girl (he's easily smitten with her).  And, yes, Reynolds is playing the umpteenth variation of the same type of character he has become famous for playing (Guy is like DEADPOOL, but minus the tights and vastly more decent minded), and he brings a lot of infectious enthusiasm to Guy that helps the film hum along.  Reynolds is still a pratfall and wisecrack generating machine here playing up to his brand, but his schtick works in relationship to the madness that unfolds around him.  FREE GUY is owned by Jodie Comer, who has to play two characters (one a ruthlessly determined Free City hero in the game and the other being the equally headstrong Millie who's trying take down a media giant by exposing wrongdoing).  She exudes such confidence and natural charisma in the film that commands genuine interest, and she absolutely helps make the story's more cockamamie elements work better than if handled by a lesser actress. 

As for the other actors?  Boy oh boy, does Taika Waititi ham it up to obnoxiously unfunny levels here as his manically egocentric game publisher.  There's a difference between over acting and what he does with Antoine, with the actor aggressively and outlandishly mugging the camera; it's like no one gave him a filter and just let him loose.  That might have worked for, say, a Jim Carrey, whose zany tomfoolery is infectious, but Waititi is simply not funny here at all.  Also, this ties into FREE GUY's attempts to tap into the darker underbelly of gaming and game development business culture, but Levy's idea of sharp, topical commentary includes inserting multiple cameos by really prominent gamers and streamers (which becomes a tad too obvious and distracting the more we cut to them).  And what about the nature of AI becoming so limitlessly powerful that it becomes sentient?  FREE GUY isn't particularly interested in exploring the seismic impact that this would have on humanity.  This shows why Levy might not have been the best choice for a thinking man's high concept comedy (remember, this is the same man that made the putrid PINK PANTHER remake).  Instead of probing the unending possibilities of his film's premise, he's more inclined to deliver chaotic spectacle, eye candy, and visual gags.  As far as satires go, FREE GUY has next to nothing up its sleeve. 

The script takes easy shots at gamers too and thinks it's knee slappingly hysterical to highlight the more stereotypical depictions of gamers: Lonely, nerdy, and introverted losers that still live with their mothers and have no lives outside of the games they vicariously exist in.  If the makers here knew anything about the actual gaming world then they'd know that players span multiple age groups and diverse ethnic, gender, and geographical backgrounds.  What's actually unintentionally funny in FREE GUY is its woefully simplistic portrayal of how games are designed, created, and maintained.  There are a lot of scenes showing Keys, for example, having God-like programming abilities; he's able to instantly alter the world of Free City with the press of a few buttons on a remote laptop.  Sure.  You betcha.  This is not as funny as the fact that he's a lowly video game designer worker-bee that's apparently rich enough to afford a ridiculously luxurious and spacious condo that probably only game company CEOs in the real world could afford.  FREE GUY comes off as pure science fiction hogwash at times.

Am I'm being a little hard on this film?  Maybe.  I think a much shrewder version of this film could have been made that delivered on the gags, fan placating gaming Easter Eggs, and joyous CGI envisioned world of Free City (and the possibilities that it entails) while also having a finger more squarely on the pulse of the larger gaming landscape outside of it.  I liked the central journey of Guy here and the themes presented within (learning to escape your comfort zone, break free of societal restraints, and become an actualized master of your own destiny...cool enough), but FREE GUY doesn't really have much more to say about its subject than cookie cutter sermonizing. The film has a million dollar look, but ten cent scripting.  Considering the omnipresent nature of video games today, FREE GUY had so much unbridled potential as a topical and engaging send-up, but it's all about flashy visual dynamism and silly hijinks in the most soft-pedaled, audience pandering manner possible, which holds it back from garnering a recommendation from me.  Watching it didn't make me want to hit the reset switch as much as it made me yearn for a firmware update patch to be downloaded mid-movie to smooth out its glitches and make the end result better.   

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