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“Free Guy” is like a hyperactive puppy. It really wants to be your friend. It’s easy to like and fun to hang out with. It also has a habit of running around in circles, losing its focus, and shitting on the floor. A family action movie that targets the Fortnite Generation, "Free Guy" also preaches the importance of individuality while not only feeling like a dozen other movies but literally incorporating some of their imagery. An enjoyable cast, including movie-stealing work from Jodie Comer, holds it all together, but one can still see just enough glitches in this matrix to wish it was better.
With a set-up that feels distinctly like that of “The LEGO Movie,” “Free Guy” introduces us to the very likable Guy (Ryan Reynolds), an NPC (Non-Player Character) in a wildly successful open world video game called “Free City.” He wears the same outfit every day, orders the same coffee, and goes to work at the same bank, which gets robbed multiple times a day by actual players in this “Grand Theft Auto”-esque game. He doesn’t care. Everything is awesome for Guy and his best pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) until the cheery fella spots a real player who goes by the handle Molotov Girl (Comer) and breaks his pattern, following the captivating woman down the street. As he becomes more interested in Molotov Girl and where she might be going, he gets his hands on a pair of sunglasses that reveal what the actual players see in this world, including missions, medikits, hubs, and other things that will be familiar to modern gamers, even if some of the tech here already looks dated. (Note: It was a brilliant move to incorporate actual gamers and streamers like Ninja, Pokimane, and DanTDM, cameos that will have kids who know those personalities jumping out of their seats.)
Back in the real world, we learn that Molotov Girl is a programmer named Millie, who used to work with another tech genius named Keys (Joe Keery) on the development of a truly ambitious virtual game, one that would replicate the actual world instead of just giving gamers violent missions to perform. She’s in “Free City” trying to find evidence that the game’s egocentric publisher Antwan (Taika Waititi) stole her code and deformed it into this bland experience when Guy proves to be the perfect inside man. The Trinity to his Neo, the two form an alliance to basically break “Free City” apart from the inside, starting with Guy’s refusal to raise his rank through violence. Guy chooses only the positive missions in the game, and becomes an internet success in the process as the world tries to figure out who this mysterious gamer might be, without realizing that he’s actually the most remarkable breakthrough in artificial intelligence in history. As Millie and Keys discover what has been created here, they endeavor to save true advancement from brash capitalism.
Director Shawn Levy does an admirable job of keeping “Free Guy” clicking and humming through several entertaining scenes in the first half, including a great montage of Guy’s “good” missions and a funny sequence in which Keys and his programming partner Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) go after Guy, but he really starts to lose the pace around the hour mark, circling back to a lot of the same plot points and themes. Rather than developing its own personality, the film struggles to shake the clear influence of other projects like “The Matrix,” “Ready Player One,” and even “The Truman Show” while also dropping in actual gaming and pop culture references with increasing regularity. The film’s best moments embrace the potential of this concept; its worst seem to be mimicking better projects.
Levy also keeps the strongest parts of "Free Guy" moving by drawing out the natural charisma of his cast. Reynolds can do this kind of charming action hero in his sleep, but Comer is a real breakthrough, charismatically holding together both the action-driven scenes as Molotov Girl and the more character-driven ones as Millie. She’s easily the best thing about the film, although it’s nice to see the affable Joe Keery get his best movie role to date too. Sadly, both cede a bit too much screen time to an overplaying Waititi in the second half of the movie, who hits the same unfunny beats over and over again and ends up feeling more cartoonish than the actual NPCs.
Every time that “Free Guy” threatens to become numbingly monotonous, a decision by writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, or one by Comer or Reynolds, brings it back into focus. "Free Guy" is more disposable than it should have been, but it’s a pleasant enough distraction. Gamers often turn to virtual worlds to escape their own. It’s fun to see the journey taken in the other direction.
Available only in theaters on August 13.
Ryan Reynolds as Guy
Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl
Lil Rel Howery as Buddy
Joe Keery as Keys
Taika Waititi as Antoine
Utkarsh Ambudkar as Mouser