Directed by Shawn Levy and co-written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, Free Guy is a live-action video game comedy starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, and Lil Rel Howery. But does it get this troubled genre’s high score?
For two decades, Ryan Reynolds has taken on plenty of larger-than-life roles, from college lifer Van Wilder to wise-cracking anti-hero Deadpool, and don’t forget the summer he was a bonafide talking Pokémon. This late summer, Reynolds once again takes on a character unlike any other, and that’s “Blue Shirt Guy,” an actual non-playable character (NPC) in an open-world, Grand Theft Auto-meets-Fortnite video game called Free City.
That’s right, Reynolds can make even a background character in a video game seem compelling and protagonist-worthy, as Blue Shirt Guy slowly gains a surprising amount of self-awareness within his pixelated confines, deciding he no longer wants to be a scripted bank teller, but rather an action hero in his own story, taking on unique, quippy dialogue and perhaps sparking romance with his dream crush, a mysterious sunglasses-wearing heroine known as “Molotov Girl” (Jodie Comer).
Ready Player Fun
Free Guy is a little bit of Wreck-It Ralph mixed in with The Lego Movie and even The Truman Show, as Blue Shirt Guy actually has no idea his entire universe is a simulation, and he’s one stylized sequel away from losing his entire self. At a certain point, Free Guy ups the difficulty level to Pixar existentialism, and it actually holds its own in that regard.
Outside the game world, Molotov Girl is actually Millie, a coder trying to bring down the corporate media company that bought out her indie game. Her former best friend Keys (Joe Keery) still works for this Activision knock-off under the zany tyranny of Antwan (Taika Waititi), a scene-stealing villain who finally, finally delivers a tech-bro performance that is consistently entertaining.
The straightforward action in the human world never really matches up with the unpredictable mania of Free City, which boasts even more memorable and outlandish performances. Lil Rel Howery comes in clutch as Blue Shirt Guy’s token Black best friend, a tired trope made far more bearable by Howery’s impeccable comedic timing and his natural energy with Reynolds, resulting in one of the film’s stealth emotional moments.
The key to Free Guy‘s playability for audiences is its breezy storytelling and sharp jokes, which are accessible even for the most casual gamers. Maybe even non-gamers who have a passing familiarity with the clichés of open world games, down to little details like NPC characters repeating the same dialogue over and over again, and some subversive writing about the ethics of gaming which are sure to be received positively by all corners of the gaming community, surely.
Free Guy is GTA IRL.
Free Guy asks a few tricky, if not quirky questions about whether or not people who play video games should be nicer to NPCs, or rather, is it OK for people to relish in the virtual violence of video games? The film never goes too deep into the upsides of both, as video games can at once be a healthy outlet for aggression, while some games can promote the value of simply enjoying life in an observational format.
The movie certainly takes a side, and it’s hard to say if it’s the most morally justifiable one. But at least it doesn’t waffle between themes at a middle school level. Sure, the sprinkled commentary about artificial intelligence rings a little hollow when compared to meatier sci-fi films. But Free City does excel where Ready Player One fell short at least, delivering a cavalcade of references at once point that is actually built up to be both impactful and chuckle-inducing.
Most open-world games tend to be massive, but empty. Free Guy learns from the mistakes of video games, oddly enough, ands allows its world to feel more lived-in and exciting, for all its splashy, cartoonish action and effects. It probably won’t save the reputation of video game movies, but it’s certainly a level up.
Free Guy opens in theaters August 13. Watch the full trailer here.