Free Guy Review: A Stealth Rom-Com Hiding Inside a Video Game World

In Free Guy, the Ryan Reynolds-starring, Shawn Levy-directed genre mash-up, it’s all fun and video games until a nefarious billionaire played by writer-director-actor Taika Waititi embraces his toxic, inner tech bro and decides to shut a massively multiplayer party down with extreme prejudice. Before then, though, a perfectly cast Reynolds merges his quippy, ironic, nice-guy persona with the title character to deliver a consistently engaging video game-inflected action romp, not-so-subtle anti-corporate satire, and a stealth romantic comedy that’s equal parts heartfelt and believable.

Taking several cues from The Lego Movie, Free Guy opens with Reynolds’ title character, Guy, starting a day like any other day, waking up on another bright, sun-drenched morning, changing into his uniform, a blue shirt/khaki combo from a closet filled with blue shirts and khakis, getting his coffee, and starting his workday as a bank teller. Each day, maybe multiple times a day, vicious armed robbers break into the bank, mistreat or beat the staff and customers, and walk out with bags of money. For Guy and his best buddy, the aptly named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), every day is like yesterday, and every tomorrow is like today. What Guy, Buddy, and the other denizens of Free City don’t know (at least yet) is that they’re all NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) in a popular, long-running online video game.

Stuck in a Groundhog Day-inspired, algorithm-based routine, Guy begins to question his life and purpose, a trait otherwise nonexistent in the other NPCs, signalling that Guy has begun evolving into a self-aware, fully sentient AI, the first of his kind, but probably not the last. When Guy, acting on impulse, deliberately borrows the sunglasses that distinguish real-world players from NPCs, his eyes are literally opened They Live-style. He can see the game the way players see the game, complete with floating objects (first-aid cases among them), power-ups, and other video game artifacts. And that’s all before Guy encounters the figurative and literal game girl of his dreams, Millie/Molotov Girl (Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer), spurring Guy to take Millie’s advice and level-up until he hits the magical level 100.

Guy, however, decides to turn the video game on its head: Rather than using violence and brutality to get what he wants from other players Grand Theft Auto-style, he decides to do good, becoming an in-game hero, a viral sensation, and eventually, the object of unwanted attention from two game developers, Keys (Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and their tech-bro boss, Antoine (Waititi). That, in turn, sets up the central conflict between Guy and Millie on one side of the digital code and Antoine and his minions in and out of the game world, with Guy eventually turning into an unlikely working-class hero and inadvertent saviour, leading a proletariat revolution of the digitally dispossessed, marginalized, and forgotten.

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Levy interweaves Guy’s seemingly impossible relationship with Millie (she’s “real,” he’s not, making a long-term relationship difficult if not outright impossible) through major and minor plot points, periodically stopping for obligatory gravity- and physics-defying set pieces that actually advance Guy and Millie’s story rather than just distracting from it. Free Guy throws up (and in) just enough obstacles and roadblocks that their eventual victory over Antoine is anything but guaranteed. Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn’s screenplay includes enough twists, turns, and switchbacks to keep audiences engaged with Guy and Millie’s individual and collective journeys in-world (for Guy and Millie) and outside the game world (for Millie, a game developer with an agenda of her own).

Free Guy’s anti-corporate satire isn’t particularly deep, though, putting all on the blame Antoine’s smug, self-satisfied billionaire and his egocentrism rather than a corporate system that both encourages and promotes rapacious, exploitative amoral tech “geniuses” like the slightly exaggerated Antoine. Like the much (and justly maligned) Ready Player One, Free Guy ultimately asks the audience to put their unqualified faith in well-meaning, well-intentioned messiah-like figures rather than question a technocratic, corporate system that not only puts profits over people but also treats those people (i.e., employees) as fungible, interchangeable, disposable characters not unlike a pre-self-aware Guy and the other NPCs who inhabit his video game world.

Free Guy opens theatrically on Friday, August 13.

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