Video games are a uniquely user-driven experience, and removing that element is part of the reason why so many big screen adaptations have failed to catch fire with either critics or audiences. In effect, the project removes the sole reason why people are invested in the property, and boils it down to what’s often an CGI-heavy slog piggybacking on a recognizable IP to at least guarantee a certain demographic will show up.
That’s why the argument can be made that the best video game blockbusters aren’t based on existing titles at all, but grab some recognizable elements and apply them to a completely original story that doesn’t come carrying years or decades of baggage. Think Wreck-It Ralph and its sequel, WarGames, Hardcore Henry, TRON, Jason Statham’s Crank duology, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, this year’s Boss Level, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Next Level, and now Free Guy. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Shawn Levy’s latest might just be the best big budget video game-inspired film yet.
Do you need to be a gamer to enjoy Free Guy? Absolutely not, but it probably helps. Make no mistake, there are a huge number of cameos in this movie, beginning with the opening seconds, from A-list celebrities (with one very notable star making a voice-only guest appearance in the first scene), but presumably many of them are well-known figures in the world of streaming, because this writer had no idea who the majority of these people were. Does it affect the viewing experience? Not in the slightest.
A high concept premise like Free Guy, which finds an NPC deviating from his daily routine to try out being a hero before slowly discovering that the world around him is an elaborately constructed ruse, needs a killer lead performance to work. Luckily, Ryan Reynolds is on phenomenal form here. It would have been the wrong move for the actor to lean into the snarkier and more sarcastic side of his onscreen persona, but he gives Guy a surprising amount of depth for someone who essentially isn’t supposed to do much more than stamp checks and get blasted into oblivion. Warm, caring, charming, romantic, funny, wholesome and even an action hero when the occasion calls for it, it’s a knockout turn.
In fact, the cast is largely excellent across the board. Taika Waititi is clearly having a blast as the villain of the piece, Joe Keery once again signals that he’ll be just fine when Stranger Things draws to a close, and Lil Rey Howery brings plenty of heart to what’s essentially one-note comic relief. However, Free Guy could turn out to be a star-making vehicle for Jodie Comer, best known for Killing Eve. It’s her first-ever leading role in a major motion picture, and you wouldn’t have guessed given the deft balance between personality and punching power she brings to the role of Milly.
The plot, for what it’s worth, finds Guy taking his destiny into his own hands after discovering he has the ability to do whatever he wants. Deciding to be a force for good in a world riddled with crime and violence, he slowly impacts not just his fellow Free City NPCs, but the player community at large. Naturally, Waititi’s dastardly Antwan will stop at nothing to ensure he gets as much money as possible from his customer base as possible, even if it means sabotaging his own creation, all while Milly and Keery’s Keys try to uncover the hidden code that he stole from them and used to make a fortune.
Free Guy might be an expensive studio production packed full of action sequences, splashy visuals, impressive CGI and a raft of nods, winks, references and Easter Eggs to pop culture, but it’s dealing with some surprisingly subversive themes in the broadest possible fashion. In effect, Waititi doesn’t care in the slightest about originality or offering a new experience when he can continue to mine the same recognizable IP over and over again, which is Hollywood and large swathes of the gaming industry down to a tee. Admittedly, it’s a little ironic to have such a thinly-veiled dig at consumerism and corporate uniformity in a movie that stands every chance of getting a sequel, but it’s there in the subtext regardless anyway.
It also deals with how obsessed people become with living their lives online, free will, destiny, broken dreams and much more, all wrapped up in what’s essentially The Truman Show meets Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, with a dash of The LEGO Movie thrown in for good measure. While it’s not as prescient or timely as the former, or as outright hilarious as the latter, Free Guy still has plenty to say without verging onto the saccharine or cloying, all while never forgetting that it’s supposed to be a big, dumb, loud, fun slice of popcorn escapism. It’s comfortably the best movie Levy’s ever directed, it finds Reynolds bringing every ounce of his natural charisma to the fore and a brisk narrative that’s over and done with credits in less than two hours ensures that Free Guy never overstays its welcome, either.