Free Guy, from director Shawn Levy (Real Steel), is powered by references. Starring Ryan Reynolds as an NPC in an open-world video game, the action comedy is a pastiche of Ready Player One, Tron, and The Lego Movie. It’s Wreck-It Ralph meets John Carpenter’s They Live. It’s a Truman Show-esque love story of Guy meets Girl, Guy falls for Girl, Guy discovers reality is a lie and God is a troll. Yet in spite of the implied disparity of all those parts, the film holds together more often than it doesn’t. It’s a competently entertaining comedy about video games (and a whole lot of other stuff) that, unlike so many blockbusters of the moment, doesn’t collapse under the weight of its pop-culture references, or forget to make actual jokes.
Reynolds stars as a guy so generic, he’s actually named Guy. He’s an affable bank teller who, unbeknownst to him and those around him, is a non-player character inside a brutal, massive online open-world game — imagine GTA Online with the mania of Fortnite. The game, Free City, is packed with sunglasses-wearing “heroes” who wreak havoc and demolish the city on a regular basis. Guy is unperturbed by this: He’s perfectly content to live out the same identical bank robbery as a hostage or victim ad infinitum, so long as he can occasionally enjoy some bubblegum ice-cream with his security-guard buddy, who’s actually named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery).
That changes when Guy crosses paths with Millie (Jodie Comer), a highly skilled player and programmer scouring the world of Free City for proof that a revolutionary game she co-developed was surreptitiously repurposed by the game’s lead developer, Antwan (played to smarmy perfection by Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi). Donning his own set of sunglasses, which reveal a whole range of possibilities within the game, Guy breaks out of his loop as he attempts to level up enough to aid Millie in her search. He starts that quest as a way to win her affections, but slowly comes to realize the full implications behind his strange existence.
Where Space Jam: A New Legacy is a movie that runs on video game logic, Free Guy is a video game movie that runs on Looney Tunes logic. There are some genuinely chuckle-worthy bits of physical comedy sprinkled throughout Free Guy, as well as some offbeat, memorable quips, courtesy of Reynold’s performance. Guy comes across as a character built in the mold of Reynolds’ most iconic role to date, Deadpool, albeit with less tongue-in-cheek anarchism, and more doe-eyed endearment.
After meeting Millie and agreeing to help her find proof of Antwan’s deception, Guy sets out to gain experience in Free City. But instead of robbing and hijacking his way through town, he does it his own way, by simply being a decent person: thwarting crimes, saving cats from trees, completing fetch-quests, and so on. In the real world, live-streamers notice his development and progress, and express bafflement at the thought that anyone, let alone this mysterious “blue shirt guy,” could play Free City without killing and teabagging everyone in sight. These scenes feature cameos from real-life streamers like Jacksepticeye, Ninja, and Pokimane, in a series of appearances which will play well to younger audiences, but instantly dates Free Guy as a movie of a very particular moment.
Taika Waititi’s portrayal as Antwan stands out as one of the most memorable and funny performances in Free Guy, apart from Reynolds. A caricature of a West Coast game executive clad in a hideous denim-leather duster that makes him look like a fourth-tier Batman villain, Waititi saunters across the screen with a flamboyant asshole charm while spouting off about the importance of IPs, sequels, and profit percentages above all else. It’s hard to take him seriously in any given scene, which is probably the point, and though he and Guy never interact directly, the two characters make for an interesting contrast of men in and around the culture of gaming.
The first half of Free Guy is solid, with several great gags and subtle background nods to popular game franchises like Halo or Megaman, which won’t necessarily stand out, except to the most eagle-eyed viewers. But in the the film’s latter half, and especially its final act, Free Guy starts dabbling with a whole mess of ideas, including, but not limited to, performative online personas, collective action as a catalyst for systemic change, gun violence in America, a rebuke of toxic online behavior, and regrettably, a deus ex machina resolution powered entirely by highly recognizable licensed IP.
By the end, Levy can’t help but indulge in the IP-friendly possibilities of his premise. Guy’s confrontation with Dude, a ’roided-up facsimile of himself created by Antwan to sell preorders of Free City 2, comes with six consecutive video game references in the span of a minute, including a split-second cameo by everyone’s favorite Avenger. Sure, it’s funny in the moment, but it’s still a sequence where Free Guy seems to give up on its own story, and momentarily lapse into the same brand obsession the film otherwise decries through its depiction of Antwan.
Free Guy is a weird, frantic comedy that opens with a Fortnite airdrop, and holds up the Platonic ideal of video game life as a post-scarcity utopian simulation à la Will Wright’s SimCity, but populated by dinosaurs and centaurs. It’s a video game comedy not about any one video game in particular, but about the meaning behind game interactions, and the personal and social connections people form through them. It’s also a story about a man blithely stumbling through an existential crisis to reclaim agency over his own life, and inspire others to do the same. Calling it the best video game film to date feels like hyperbole, but it certainly has more heart and humor than its contemporaries.
Free Guy is now streaming on HBO Max and Disney Plus, and is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.