Review: “Free Guy”

Guy is not the kind of character you’d usually want to play in a shooter game. In fact, he’s not the kind of character you’d normally be able to play at all. Guy is a non-playable character, or NPC, a background figure created to populate a video game’s environment, whether to just provide atmosphere or give the playable characters someone to interact with— often with violent results.

In director Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy,” Blue Shirt Guy’s, also known as Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds), function within the video game Free City is to wake up, put on his nicely starched collared shirt and khaki pants, get coffee, go to work as a bank teller, endure the numerous robberies committed by playable characters, go home, go to bed, wake up the next day, and do the same thing over again. Except for the violence that constantly rains down on them, Free City seems idyllic, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone and is always friendly. Guy, along with his best friend, security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, always hilarious but sadly relegated to the Black best friend role), is bubbly and, seemingly, pretty happy, blissfully unaware that he and the world he lives in aren’t technically real. But for all that’s good, Guy can’t seem to stop talking about finding his dream girl, and then one day, walking down the street, he sees her: a playable character called Molotov Girl. That’s when everything starts to shift for Guy. He no longer wants his usual coffee with sugar; he wants to try a cappuccino. He doesn’t want to do the same thing day in and day out; when one of the playable characters tries to rob the bank, Guy takes the glasses that give players to ability to see missions and level ups within the game, and starts to take control. He levels up in the game, not through violence and killing, but through being nice and helping people- and the real world starts to take notice.

As Guy is becoming increasingly self-aware, there’s another story happening in the outside world. Molotov Girl’s player is a young woman named Millie (also played by Comer), a programmer who, with her friend and former partner Keys (Joe Keery), created the code that is responsible for Guy’s evolving consciousness. That code was stolen and embedded in Free City by the game’s publisher Antwan (Taika Waititi), for whom Keys now reluctantly works, and Millie is using Molotov Girl, and eventually the help of Guy, to find it before Antwan shuts down the game for good.

“Free Guy” and its multiple storylines are reminiscent of several films, like “The Truman Show” and “Tron,” that came before it and delivered their messaging more simply and effectively, but as a charming tribute to gaming culture, “Free Guy” works perfectly fine as its own thing. It sounds like there’s a lot of plot, and technically, there is. But while it starts to go off the rails a bit in its third act, wearing its premise rather thin with the addition of a buff but idiotic version of Guy as a sort of final boss and several funny but too on-the-nose Disney references (“Free Guy” was already in development when The Walt Disney Company purchased 20th Century Fox in 2019 and decided to keep the project on the table), “Free Guy” overall nicely ties together all its story threads in a way that makes sense. 

The Guy storyline is definitely the most interesting and entertaining aspect of the movie, thanks to a funny script that plays on Guy’s fish-out-of-water status once he starts actually playing the game, and also thanks to Reynolds’ performance. It feels like Reynolds has been playing a version of Deadpool/Wade Wilson ever since that 2016 movie, and there are certainly shades of that in “Free Guy,” but all in all, he seems to be having a ball playing a humorous but ultimately genuinely good-hearted person. It’s always apparent that Guy deeply cares about everyone around him, and even as he becomes increasingly excited to see the world opening up around him, he prioritizes helping Millie and saving the other NPCs.

Comer is equally fun in her dual role as a tough action hero within the game and a sort of awkward programmer outside of it, and her relationship with Reynolds is charming and sweet. A lot of that sweetness carries over to Millie’s relationship with Keys; in fact, although this movie was marketed (and boy was it marketed) as primarily an action comedy, I’d say it’s at least equally, if not more so, a romantic comedy. Comer, Keery, and Utkarsh Ambudkar—who plays Keery’s coworker Mouser—are frequently fun to watch in their storyline set in the real world, but less so than the parts set within Free City. A lot of this has to do with Waititi’s off-putting villain, an eccentric man-child who dresses like he just made off with half of a Hot Topic store’s inventory and threatens, whines, and bullies his employees and anyone who doesn’t let him get his way. Even though he holds the ability to shut down the game, thereby killing all the now-sentient NPCs inside of it, Antwan never feels dangerous beyond that, just annoying, and the he flagrantly breaks the rules surrounding his business dealings makes it clear that there’s no way he can get away with this in the end.

Despite the flaws that “Free Guy” has, it’s still a blast, with fun characters, great gags, good messaging about love and free will, and appropriately ridiculous video gamey action sequences because hey, we’re in a video game. The many YouTuber cameos and the world-building and references contained within “Free Guy” are sure to delight gamers, while general audiences will want to look out for some other cameos, both seen onscreen and heard in voiceover. One aspect of “Free Guy” hits a bit different coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic however. “Free Guy” was originally supposed to be released in 2020, with its first trailers cropping up early in the year, before it was temporarily pulled from the release schedule. Part of the plot of “Free Guy” revolves around the fact that no one would want to play the friendly, pleasant video game that Millie and Keys had originally envisioned over a violent shooter, but if the great Animal Crossing craze of 2020 is any indication, people actually love games where you just walk around and vibe. Maybe that aspect of “Free Guy” doesn’t hold up super well, but like playing Animal Crossing, I think this movie’s wholesomeness is something a lot of viewers will find comfort in.

“Free Guy” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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