Free Guy makes its streaming debut on Disney+ and HBO Max after becoming a surprising pandemic box office hit. It stars Ryan Reynolds as a robust doofus optimist who slowly learns that there’s more to life than being a background character in a worldwide-phenom online role-playing game. It’s a bright, uptempo, somewhat bloated, high-concept mainstream action-comedy that might be just the distraction we need right now, right? Let’s find out for sure.
FREE GUY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Everything is awesome for Guy (Reynolds), a relentlessly upbeat fella who lives in Free City. “Don’t have a good day — have a great day!” is his mantra. He gets up every day, puts on the same blue shirt, orders the same coffee from the same barista, goes to work as a teller at a bank where he chats playfully with his security guard best pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) as heavily armed badasses in sunglasses rob the place with alarming regularity. In fact, the streets of Free City sure seem chaotic — those sunglassed badasses constantly commit felonies and murders and perpetrate other miscellaneous acts of extreme violence. Weird, how Guy maintains his sprightly personality in such a crime-ridden hell. Weirder, how he refers to the wrongdoers as “heroes.” It’s as if Free City is a bit morally upside-down, and the whole of Guy’s existence is preprogrammed or something.
Well, that’s because it IS preprogrammed, and life in Free City isn’t life at all. Free City is actually Free City, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and Guy is a non-player character (NPG) who exists to be robbed, beaten or murdered by the sunglass badasses, who are the playable characters (PCs), and therefore boost their scores. But there may be a glitch in this matrix, and that glitch is (pause for dramatic effect) LOVE. Guy is quite taken by a PC known as Molotovgirl, and starts puppydogging behind her. In the real reality, Molotovgirl is Millie (Jodie Comer of Killing Eve), who plays not to slaughter and annihilate everything, but to find the code she’s convinced was stolen from her and former gamebuilding partner Keys (Stranger Things’ Joe Keery). Their game was called Life Itself, essentially a very much way far less violenter version of Free City. It might not be a big deal if Free City guru Antwan (Taika Waititi) actually paid them for the intellectual property rights, but he’s a real piece of work, the type of guy it’s very hard to be in the same room with. He’s the type of hyperactive juvenile billionaire quasi-adult you just want to smack a thousand times.
And yet, Keys is often in the same room with Antwan. Keys took a job as a Free City tech schmoe, which, considering his employer probably stole his stuff, is kind of inexplicable, except in the context of this very movie plot, because that way, Millie has someone on the inside to surreptitiously help her. Meanwhile, in ones and zeroes land, Guy swipes a pair of sunglasses from a player, which reveal a heads-up display (HUD) for the game, radically altering his perception. Molotovgirl/Millie takes to his earnest dorkwad charm, which is an anomaly in Free City. Guy starts leveling up through the game not by blasting crap and kicking folks, but by doing good deeds, which makes him famous in the real world, where he’s known as Blue Shirt Guy; Good Morning America does a segment on him and everything. Antwan tells Keys and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) to find out what’s behind Blue Shirt Guy, assuming a hacker is behind it — but it’s not a hacker, it’s just a guy, Guy, who sure seems to be unusually artificially intelligent. If so, this clueless AF NPC is just the singularity, NBFD (no big flippin’ deal).
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Let’s see here: A ceaselessly cheerful cog in the societal machine (The Lego Movie) lives the same day over and over (Groundhog Day) in an extraordinarily detailed video game world (Ready Player One) but doesn’t know it isn’t “reality” (The Truman Show) until the truth is revealed via special sunglasses (They Live) and he realizes he’s a superpowered chosen one (The Matrix) as well as a self-aware artificial intelligence who falls in love with a human (Her). Did I miss any?
Performance Worth Watching: Although Guy doesn’t have a snarky bone in his body, the character is a fastball in Reynolds’ strike zone. A tighter screenplay would’ve resulted in a home run, but a solid single followed by a stolen base ain’t too bad.
Memorable Dialogue: Guy REALLY likes his coffee and expresses it with a line that only Ryan Reynolds could deliver: “It’s like losing my virginity — but in my mouth!”
Sex and Skin: None. TBTOATF: Too Busy Typing Out Acronyms To F—.
Our Take: The game within the movie Free Guy is like Grand Theft Auto, and the movie Free Guy is like Grand Theft Movie Ideas. So it’s not exactly a bastion of originality, but that isn’t a dealbreaker. Reynolds and director Shawn Levy invigorate the film with enough vibrancy to keep it afloat despite its unfocused conceptual splatter, which ranges from the implications of A.I. on society to IP rights to identity and perception to out-of-touch billionaires to the balance of fantasy and reality to a satirical take on violent games and the gaming industry (and I feel like I’m overlooking a few). The film consistently half-asses this fodder, breezing by all of it in a quest for diverting entertainment, which is fine, because who would ever cast Reynolds in something we should take seriously anyway? I mean, his last four movies were Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, The Croods 2, a Michael Bay piece of crap called 6 Underground, and Detective Pikachu.
Levy’s track record is similar, having helmed middling fluff like the Night at the Museum films, megaclunker Real Steel and a pile of glossy comedies. He keeps Free Guy smooth-sipping and almost-but-not-quite thematically nutritious, and maintains a high standard for VFX (visual effects) that almost has us guessing whether the Free City scenes are CGI (computer generated imagery) or shot on location (although they almost certainly are CGI). Otherwise, the movie has a junked-up plot; a dragged-out, 45-minute climax that’s a real check-your-watch-er; too many scenes of people tappity-tappity-tapping furiously on computer keyboards; a tossed-in WGAF (who gives a flip) love story; perfectly OK supporting performances from Comer and Howery, who aren’t offered the opportunity to reach their charismatic potential; and references to movie megafranchises that it mistakenly believes are actual jokes. All of this barely holds together enough to be functional, which is not nothing, I guess.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Free Guy is probably a must for Reynolds junkies. It’s definitely a halfway-decent escapist popcorn-muncher, sometimes amusing and satisfying in its action. Keep your expectations modest.