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Review: Free Guy

August 12, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

I missed the feeling of sitting in a theatre and being pleasantly surprised by how good something was. That’s the experience I had last week at the morning press screening of Free Guy, director Shawn Levy’s new high concept comedy that is set within the confines of a video game.

I was looking forward to Free Guy and I’m still surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it when I sat down to watch it. Levy has done a bang-up job of crafting a piece of glossy, mainstream pop entertainment that comes together incredibly well and fires on all cylinders. The film is really funny and entertaining, yes, but also has a surprising amount of heart to it along with some deeper themes.

A big key to the film’s success is Ryan Reynolds, who stars in Free Guy as the titular Guy, a non-player character (NPC) who exists in a hugely popular video game called Free City that is like a cross between The SimsFortnite and Grand Theft Auto. The NPCs have a very narrow path that they must follow and can only have predetermined interactions with the game’s actual players, who are identified by wearing sunglasses.

Every day, Guy gets up and puts on the same blue shirt and khakis, gets the same coffee order from the same barista, and goes to work at the bank with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howry). And every day, the bank gets robbed by a group of thugs. It’s always the same thing. Get dressed, get coffee, go to work, get robbed. Rinse and repeat. Until one day when Guy decides that he isn’t going to take it anymore, and defies his programming by standing up to the robbers for once and pilfering a pair of glasses. When he puts them on and steps outside, a whole new world is revealed to him, complete with missions, game scores and other graphics.

Suddenly, the NPC becomes a player able to effect things in the game. Guy is inspired to take his destiny into his own hands after meeting, and being unable to interact with, his dream girl (Jodie Comer), a new player who goes by the moniker Molotov Girl. The film splits its time in the real world, where we find out that Molotov Girl is the username of a young programmer named Millie. She had developed an even more ambitious open world game with her former partner Keys (Joe Keery), who now works for Free City‘s arrogant publisher Antoine (Taika Waititi).

They believe that Antoine used their code in developing the game, and Guy provides the perfect double agent to try and find proof within Free City, so that they can take him down through an ongoing legal battle. Waititi actually feels somewhat out of place here, with his overtly goofy portrayal of Antoine being on a different comedic wavelength from the other performers. A few of his scenes go on for too long and end up being a distraction from the story. The big climax is also maybe a bit too busy for its own good. But these are only minor quibbles about an overall massively enjoyable film.

Levy keeps Free Guy moving at a good clip and does a fine job of raising the stakes in both the real world and the video game, with a surprisingly sweet romantic subplot that blends in nicely between them. It’s the amount of heart that Levy brings to the film that makes it work so well. Guy remains an endearing protagonist throughout, and Reynolds is at his most affable and likeable in the role. He delivers a great comic performance that sees his character going from naive NPC to main player as he starts to discover more of his world and gains an online following by doing good deeds in the game.

It’s an arc that Reynolds plays very well, never forgetting the winsome qualities of the character even as he morphs into an action hero. But it’s Comer who emerges as the film’s breakout star. She is essentially tasked with playing two characters, and does a very good job of breathing life into both Millie and her avatar. She is not only an appealing love interest in both roles that she plays, but also capably holds her own alongside Reynolds in both the comedic and action scenes. Elsewhere, Keery does likeable work as a slightly aloof techie. Howry serves as an amusing sidekick to Reynolds, while also delivering a genuinely touching speech partway through.

The screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn does a good job of introducing some deeper themes about determinism versus free will and what it means to be sentient. While it’s all done within the easily accessible confines of a summer blockbuster, Free Guy deftly touches upon these philosophical concepts in a way that I greatly enjoyed. Yes, the story is clearly influenced by films like The Truman Show and Ready Player One (which Penn also co-wrote), with some elements of The Matrix and Groundhog Day worked in as well, but it’s delivered in a way that feels inventive and fresh.

Studios have long tried to make those elusive four-quadrant hits (films that play equally well with over-25s, under-25s, and male and female audiences), and Free Guy feels like one through and through. Levy skillfully balances comedy, action, drama and romance, crafting a rousing film that pretty much anyone can enjoy and get something out of. It deserves to be a big hit.

Free Guy opens in theatres this week. It’s being distributed in Canada by 20th Century Studios.

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