2021 has been a bleak year for “IP grab” films (Space Jam, anyone?) and the odds were looking equally as bad for FREE GUY. After a significant delay in its release, due to COVID-19, there were concerns going in that the film would have lost its momentum or suffered from the bad luck that seems to plague so many video game films. I’m so happy to report that FREE GUY emerges victorious from its pandemic delay, and delivers one of the first truly hilarious comedies of the year.
In FREE GUY, a bank teller (appropriately named Guy) enjoys a simple and happy life. He wakes with a smile every morning, grabs his favorite coffee, and walks to work with his best friend. Sure, his city is plagued by violent criminals that rob the bank daily and cause general mayhem and destruction, but life is good. Unbeknownst to Guy, he’s an NPC (non-player character) living in a very popular online game. One day, after a chance meeting with an alluring player, Guy seizes the opportunity to live a life that is bigger.
The film stars Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) as Guy, Jodie Comer (“Killing Eve”), Joe Keery (Spree), Lil Rey Howery (Get Out), Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Broken Hearts Gallery), and Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit). Shawn Levy (“Stranger Things”) helms the film with writers Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (The Avengers).
FREE GUY is the most lovable sort of goofy. The humor is over the top and even a little bit ridiculous, but commits with such warmth and sincerity that you can’t help smiling. So much of the credit in pulling off that balance between great versus grating silliness goes to Ryan Reynolds, a lovable goof himself, and his performance as Guy. From dweeby NPC to bad-ass leading man, Reynolds is excellent and FREE GUY is a unique showcase for the actor on par with his beloved performance in Deadpool.
While humor and pop culture comedy is the bread and butter of FREE GUY, the most interesting bits to chew on are the film’s commentary on video games as an industry and the ethics associated with artificial intelligence. Outside of the context of the film, the speed at which technology moves is as astounding as it is anxiety-inducing. As contemporary viewers, the role of technology in our own lives makes for an interesting undercurrent to everything we see in FREE GUY. What is our relationship with technology? Are we consuming responsibly? Whose hands can we place all of this responsibility in? These questions are much bigger than a comedy film, and yet this film dives right in. Really well done.
FREE GUY is definitely a film designed with the Fortnite generation in mind, but it remains accessible to video game illiterates (like myself). The film definitely skews younger in its appeal and there are plenty of cameos and references that were lost on me. But, ultimately, FREE GUY is a love letter to pop culture and draws upon the full spectrum of culture to make its point. The film is brimming with goodies for fans of geek culture of any age and any stripe.
FREE GUY is great, but it has its imperfections. Oddly, the strength of the film is also its weakness. The film occasionally muddles through areas that are a little formulaic, a little predictable, and lacking depth. Taika Waititi’s performance as villain game developer Antwan (I did chuckle, writing that out) is a perfect example. As a villain, Antwan is the video game equivalent of the guy with the curly mustache that goes around tying damsels to railroad tracks. Antwan is two-dimensionally evil. Evil for evil’s sake and evil without being particularly interesting. Taika Waititi, however, is so committed to Antwan’s unique brand of chaos and he is on that screen selling it with the same fervor of a stripper the night before rent is due.
Taika Waititi is a nuclear reactor of comedic energy, physicality, and just plain weird choices that are so absurd and yet it works. It really, really works. That’s the thing about FREE GUY – it just somehow works, even when it shouldn’t. There are plenty of elements in the film that are lackluster, when isolated and scrutinized, but the entire package is so much fun that you can easily forgive these shortcomings.
FREE GUY is fun. Ridiculously fun. Truly unique and thought-provoking concepts are bolstered by the great performances of a damn strong cast. FREE GUY has just set the bar for comedies this year. FREE GUY opens in theaters on August 13, 2021.