After being scheduled, pushed, rescheduled, pushed, and rescheduled *again* (this became a gag within the marketing), the Shawn Levy-directed (Stranger Things/This Is Where I Leave You) action comedy Free Guy is finally hitting theaters. (Or is it?) Frankly, and there’re too few films I’d say this for, but Free Guy has been worth the wait. It’s not a *must-see in theaters* type of film, but it is a film that shouldn’t be missed. It’s got cleverly staged action, hilarious performances from the cast, and such an incredible understanding of the video game lexicon that anyone who’s ever played a first-person (FPS) or third-person shooter (TPS) from Wolfenstein to Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell will get the references. Best of all, as with any of your favorite games, there’s a plethora of easter eggs hidden within that will entice you to return for future viewings. Luckily for us all, the script by Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Marvel’s The Avengers) possesses some unexpected depths that will make those rewatches rewarding.
Free City resident Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is tired of his life. Every day he wakes up, puts on the same outfit, walks to work with his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howry), avoids the upper-class sunglass-wearing heroes marauding through the city, gets his morning coffee, goes to work at the Free City Bank, gets robbed, and goes home. Day in, day out, it’s all the same. But everything changes for him when he meets a hero named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) who shows him that his world is not at all what it seems.
A word of caution as we move forward: I will be avoiding anything spoilery even more than normal in this review, not because the Ryan Reynolds-featured intro ahead of the press screening asked us to (though that is a professional courtesy), but because you should go into this film as blind as possible. Free Guy isn’t Oscar Bait or high art, but, despite its glossy veneer and cleverly constructed action pieces, lies a film that should be enjoyed as purely as possible. While I will be delving into the themes and how well the creatives achieved their goal of entertaining the audience, I would almost ask that you stop reading here and return once you’ve seen the film so as to avoid any accidental inception.
Still with me? Alright. In we go.
Free Guy inexplicably plays on many levels. To be glib, Free Guy is an action romcom born from a mixture of Tron (1982), They Live (1988), The Matrix (1999), and The Truman Show (1998). While that description makes the film appear outwardly accessible, it’s also minimizes what Lieberman, Penn, and Levy put on the screen. Using video games as the foundation for the narrative, Free Guy is empowered to use all the features audiences are familiar with within the gaming community and deconstruct it to look at it as a microcosm of humanity as a whole. Free City is a place where a certain class can do literally whatever they want — steal cars, accost citizens, commit larceny — without concern for any of the citizens, referred to as NPCs (non-playable characters) by the sunglasses-wearing “heroes.” The NPCs, on the other hand, must follow a strict set of parameters from repeating the same dialogue over and over, constantly getting into the same violent situations, or being on the receiving end of violence. Otherwise, they themselves will face extreme punishment. Guy’s awakening shakes up his personal perspective as he learns that wearing the sunglasses enables him to see an interactive layer placed overtop Free City, a world hidden from his normal perception (see: They Live and its biting commentary on consumerism). By putting them, he is able to interact with the same power-ups, healing tools, and life-altering measures that the “heroes” do. As shown in the trailers, Guy uses this new-found knowledge to protect his fellow NPCs. To the users, this makes him an anomaly, while to his fellow citizens, he’s their blessed protector. This, of course, puts him on the radar of the film’s villain, Antoine (actor/writer/director Taika Waititi having an absolute ball), who sees Guy as a glitch in need of eradicating. The fact that Guy can put on some glasses that basically red pill him while he interacts with a user as his exploits get watched by millions around the world is where the comparisons to other films come from, yet, as expressed above, what makes Free Guy resonate is its starting perspective regarding classism, violence, and free will.
One thing in particular that’s worth pointing out is the way in which violence is used throughout Free Guy. To the citizens of Free City, it’s a natural occurrence for them to be tossed out of windows, hit with cars, or demeaned via tea-bagging. To them, it’s what’s expected and doing anything else is unnatural. As audiences, we laugh when the gamers react with some kind of indignant fury, wanting to increase the pain when Guy intervenes. What’s also a weakness of that disconnect from personal reality is the sense that you can do anything without consequences. When EoM editor Crystal Davidson had a bad day in college, she’d go back to her dorm room, put on Fable 1 and kick chickens. She did this consciously and with the intent of not saving so that the in-game morality system wouldn’t ding her when she wanted to play for real. Then there’s me who tried going the evil route in Fable 2 and had to stop because it was so opposite of my internal wiring. Free Guy highlights the best and worst of humanity when given a closed system of endless possibilities. Thankfully, with this examination, Lieberman and Penn offer a positive and hopeful retort that avoids the saccharine or idealistic notions which would have audiences spraining their eyes during a deep, heavy roll. In sticking the landing, Free Guy is not only a hilarious action-packed romp, but a thoughtful one that asks us to consider our better natures, even when we know we’re acting in a simulated space. (By the way, for my philosophy nerds, the inclusion and use of Simulation Theory within Free Guy brilliantly enables the film to navigate the more complicated areas of the narrative with more grace.)
The upsides of Free Guy are immense, the downsides are few, and I do wish the film had been able to release sooner, if not in theaters, then on VOD. Ryan Reynolds offers his typical understated deadpan delivery, but it matches the naiveté of his character. Jodie Comer technically gives two performances (one action-heavy, one grounded) and she makes sure that the virtual and physical remain connected as one. Joe Keery (Stranger Things/Spree), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect/The Broken Hearts Gallery), and Howery (Get Out/Space Jam: A New Legacy) round out the cast in supportive roles and smoothly pick up the narrative baton in ways literally and metaphysically. Though Reynolds and Comer are the leads, Free Guy is more of an ensemble piece radiating positivity and inclusion. It’s not Ted Lasso-positive, but it is entirely a balm, offering a respite from the hopelessness of the day-to-day and offering some much needed affirmation that it’s ok to break out of your regular programming; that it’s not too late to change your life; that while some days it feels like you’re following the same program, it’s within you to make a change. You get all that, jokes, action, and more in a breezy 155 minutes. With all it has in the mix, Free Guy ends up being the perfect summer salve to what ails. Plug in, drop out, get a life.
In select theaters August 13th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Free Guy website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.