Free Guy 4 stars Cert 12A, in cinemas
Perfect looks, perfect attitude, and perfectly anodyne in every way, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) awakes each perfect morning with a smile on his face. His sole reason for being is his job as a bank teller at Free City Bank, where his best friend is security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and nothing is a problem, not even the regular armed hold-ups.
Generally, in fact, Free City is a fairly anarchic place, with all sorts of collisions and explosions constantly going off in the background as Guy skips to work like the model employee and citizen he is. As is explained to us (in archetypal Ryan Reynolds voiceover), some of the citizens in Free City wear glasses, and this imbues them with certain destructive rights and capabilities that the likes of Guy and Buddy can’t even comprehend. And that’s just dandy, by the way.
When Guy claps eyes on Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a dangerous and seductive glasses-wearer, he falls head over heels, even though her “caste” makes her untouchable, that is if she ever noticed his existence in the first place. Nonetheless, the strength of his feelings towards this mysterious girl makes him begin to question things.
It has been apparent from the opening minutes of Free Guy that we are either in an outright fantasy land or on the other side of some kind of mirror. We then step out of this universe to discover that Guy is a background character in a violent and hysterically popular global video game called Free City run by gaming corporation Soonami. In order to progress and accumulate points, players basically run amok – causing carnage on the streets.
Molotov Girl, we learn, is the actual gaming avatar of Millie, a gaming programmer. She is trying to take down Soonami’s head-honcho Antwan (Taika Waititi) who has stolen the game’s fundamental technology created by her and fellow programmer Keys (Joe Keery). Keys, a somewhat disgruntled employee in Soonami HQ, is nearing the end of his tether.
Back in Free City, Guy happens upon a pair of glasses which allow him to see the full spectrum of his dimension, including the limitations of his own existence. In a bid to reach Molotov Girl’s standing in society, he sets about righting the wrongs being perpetrated all around him, accruing not only points but legions of fans among those playing the game around the world.
This fandom presents a major threat to the money-hungry Antwan. Free City’s feverishly anticipated upcoming sequel can’t be rolled out unless this original world – and the artificial-intelligence miracle that is Guy – are wiped clean.
We can’t get enough of tales that portray inherently good but underutilised drones stuck on the treadmill of urban living, who then break free in heroic fashion.
This sugar-rush of potential finally being realised is writ large in classics such as Big, Elf, and The Truman Show, and Free Guy’s appeal belongs to this lineage. The Truman Show in particular, with its seismic coming-of-age wonderment, is particularly ingrained in Shawn Levy’s film, as is recent gaming fantasy Ready Player One (whose co-writer Zak Penn was employed here).
Films are made out of other films, especially big studio offerings. Free Guy mightn’t be the most original sci-fi action-comedy to appear this year, but that is not a roadblock to its entertainment value.
In its early moments, as Guy is strolling through car wrecks and collapsing buildings with a smile on his face, you pray that this won’t be 114 minutes of CGI calamity punctuated by Reynolds’s one-liners, and your prayers are more or less answered. As you’d expect from the premise and its existential leanings, the really compelling parts of Free Guy, the ones that stay with you, happen behind the wizard’s curtain back in the real world with Millie and Keys. Some of this turns out to be compelling and even heart-warming.
The lead is pretty much written for Reynolds, who initially brought Matt Lieberman’s screenplay to the attention of Levy. The Canadian can mix up physical action with the snappiest rat-tat-tat comic dialogue and make it look effortless, and therein lies his box office muscle. Reynolds’s smarmy wit has a limit, however, and it is vitally leavened here by a gorgeous cast across the reality chasm from his character, namely Comer and Keery. Waititi, romping about as the dastardly but camp gaming mogul, nearly steals the show – as all villains should.