Review by C.J. Bunce
In a pre-pandemic world we all would have seen Free Guy in the theater by now and everyone would have been raving about it since August. Now it’s arrived for a wider audience on streaming platform Disney Plus. Is it worth your time? Absolutely. It’s so much better than advertised, you’re certain to be surprised at the layers of storytelling found in this mix of Ready Player One (but 50 times better) Tron: Legacy, Mr. ROBOT, The Truman Show, The LEGO Movie, Elf, Sleeping Beauty, and lots of other great shows. Yes, it’s another video game movie, but it’s bigger. It’s another Ryan Reynolds action movie. But lots more fun.
The star of Free Guy is actually Jodie Comer (best known for Killing Eve, The White Princess, Thirteen, and playing Rey’s mom in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). She plays a software developer named Millie, who, back in 2013, created a MMPORG called Life Itself with her friend Keys, played by Stranger Things’ Steve Harrington actor, Joe Keery. Millie and Keys sold their game engine to the show’s villain, the quirky and vile CEO of Soonami games named Antwan, played by actor (also Oscar-winning writer, and frequent superstar director) Taika Waititi. It’s no surprise that Antwan embedded their game inside his mega-hit, a first-person shooter game called Free City. But Antwan claims he didn’t use Millie and Keys’ work, leaving Keys to be a mere programmer at Soonami, and Millie to pursue reverse engineering the game so she has evidence to sue Antwan. To do this, she enters the game as a covert, badass Lara Croft-type, player character called MOLOTOVGIRL.
Does that sound like anything you saw in the previews? Heck no. But the part you did see is great, too. That’s Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a non-player character (aka “NPC”) inside the game, who somehow gains video game world sentience. Who he is, how he got there, and why he got there is the mystery to unravel for Millie and Keys. Soon it’s a mystery the worldwide audience for the game also wants to solve.
Comer and Keery were perfectly cast here, they have great chemistry, and are sure to be big box office draws with each new movie. They are joined by Ghosts co-star Utkarsh Ambudkar as Keys’ friend and co-worker Mouser. A great early scene finds Keys and Mouser trying to fix the bug that is apparently Guy, who suddenly ceases the typical game universe tasks of a throwaway NPC. Also watch for Lil Rel Howery as Guy’s best pal and bank co-worker.
Everyone in and outside the world thinks Reynolds’ Guy is a real-world player posing as an NPC, but he may be something more. This is science fiction again posing that age-old question asked of cyborgs and robots: What does it mean to be human? And it’s another Frankenstein creation story.
Jodie Comer plays all kinds of emotions brilliantly–she’s a better Lara Croft than Lara Croft, who can switch modes to play a genius software designer, then she’s back to a typical gamer glued to the screen, then a woman falling in love for the first time, and back through it all again.
The script is part comedy, and also a romance, and a fairy tale, and a parody and spoof of crappy video game software companies, and all their over-promising, under-performing, with all the bugs in their coding, and the flip side: those social media wonks, YouTubers, and others spending their days chatting about it, tearing the games down or propping them up.
Free Guy is a lot of things, but most importantly it’s funny, it’s executed well, and it’s executed thoughtfully and intelligently.
Look for a strong soundtrack and score by perennial favorite and that 21st century go-to composer, Christophe Beck.
Ryan Reynolds is in top form again, after his most recent outing in the lackluster Netflix movie Red Notice. But ask yourself as you watch: Is Ryan Reynolds here more Will Ferrell in Elf or Chris Pratt in The LEGO Movie, that guy in the Mint Mobile commercials, or Jim Carrey in… anything?
Yes, it’s 50 times better than you’d expect, and 50 times better than Ready Player One. Don’t worry, it’s not Pixels. It is the latest extension of video game movies–especially the sub-genre of movies about video games that weren’t first real-world video games–that all began with Tron.
Bits of fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty are undeniable, with tropes–pretty much all the tropes–cleverly woven in from THX-1138, Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. ROBOT, The Last Starfighter, The Truman Show, Tron: Legacy, and even They Live.
Viewers will catch great cameos from Channing Tatum messing with Reynolds’ character, a last look at Alex Trebek, and in a curious twist for those paying close attention, Matty Cardarople, who plays Keith in Stranger Things, as what is apparently a grown-up version gamer named Keith, the player behind Tatum’s avatar Revenjamin.
It doesn’t have the revolutionary visual effects of Tron, but it does have a story and execution better than the Lara Croft movies, Mortal Kombat, and others, more on a level with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Jumanji: The Next Level.
There is a lot of “meta” going on. There’s the non-player character, and the other characters who know their place in the world, and then the real world. The theme? You only have to make the choice to be a good guy. What is real? Life is what you make it. And it’s nicely subversive–more than your typical throwaway video game movie.
Director Shawn Levy (Stranger Things, Night at the Museum) and writers Matt Lieberman (Scooby Doo: A New Universe, The Addams Family) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One, The Avengers) got this right. A great movie, a great video game movie, and more than a solid Ryan Reynolds action flick like Deadpool and 6 Underground, Free Guy is streaming now on Disney Plus and HBO Max, and it’s available on Blu-ray and digital home release in the UK.