Review: ‘Free Guy,’ starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery and Taika Waititi

August 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy”

Directed by Shawn Levy

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action comedy film “Free Guy” features a predominantly male, mostly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and one Māori/indigenous cast member) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A video game’s simulated city becomes the focus of conflict from the game’s characters and the gamers in the real world who want to manipulate actions in this simulated city.

Culture Audience: “Free Guy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedic action movies that revolve around video game culture and put more emphasis on style over substance.

Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Joe Keery in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy” looks like an outdated idea for a video game movie that would’ve worked better when the SimCity video game was first released in 1989. It’s a dumb action comedy that tries to be clever with convoluted video game scenarios to dress up its very weak plot and cringeworthy jokes. The movie overloads on tech jargon and formulaic action scenes as gimmicks that can’t hide this movie’s lazy banality.

Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, “Free Guy” was obviously made to appeal to video game enthusiasts as a target audience. However, because video games have progressed immensely since the early years of SimCity—especially when it comes to world building, visual effects and multilayered outcomes—much of the video game that’s at the center of “Free Guy” looks simplistic and boring. The only real nod to 21st century gaming that this movie has is that people worldwide have the ability to play the game simultaneously over the Internet.

The video game in “Free Guy” is called Free City, which is about a simulated city called Free City that’s supposed to be a mid-sized American city where chaos and destruction can happen at any moment. (“Free Guy” was actually filmed in Boston.) Players of Free City get more points and can advance to the next level (also known as “leveling up”), based on acts of unprovoked hostility and violence that they can put in the game.

Every day, an armed robbery takes place at Free City Bank. This financial institution is the place of employment for cheerful bank teller Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) and his wisecracking best friend Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery), who’s a security guard. It’s a scenario that plays out with such routine predictability that Guy has come to expect it.

Guy, who is the voiceover narrator and protagonist of the movie, explains that in Free City, laws are like “mild suggestions.” The “heroes” in Free City can be identified by wearing special eyeglasses. Later, Guy finds out what happens when someone in Free City puts on these special eyeglasses. But in the beginning of the movie, Guy is just a character that’s supposed to stick to the same routine every day.

Guy is stuck in a rut and doesn’t even know it at first. When he wakes up in the morning, he says and does the same things. When he goes to a local coffee shop before heading to work, he places the same order: coffee with cream and two spoons of sugar. Guy is the type of character who says, “Coffee: It’s like losing my virginity, but in my mouth.”

Almost everyone in Free City has a daily routine. The city is so basic that there are no tourist attractions, and anyone who doesn’t have the special eyeglasses is just supposed to fade into the background. In other words, whoever thought up this video game has terrible world building skills and gave the players very limited options what they could do. In this city, people are either aggressors or potential targets for that aggression.

However, one day, Guy’s life takes an unexpected turn. At the local coffee shop, he orders a cappuccino instead of his usual coffee with cream and sugar. The barista named Missy (played by Britne Oldford), who always serves the same order to Guy, freaks out because she doesn’t know what to do because Guy has ordered cappuccino.

On that same day, when the bank robbery occurs at Guy’s job, instead of handing over money to the robber, Guy gets into a fight with the thief, takes the thief’s gun, and shoots the thief. During the altercation, Guy takes the thief’s special eyeglasses. And that’s when Guy can see and experience Free City in a whole different way. He immediately notices that when he wears the glasses, he has superhuman strength and things appear in his sight that he wouldn’t be able to see without wearing the glasses.

While wearing the glasses, Guy sees a medical bag floating in front of him. And when he takes the bag, the wounds he sustained during the bank robbery fight (such as cuts, bruises and a broken nose) are automatically healed. When Guy goes to an ATM to get money from his bank account, he sees that the money he had in the account (less than $150) has turned into thousands of dollars, because the ATM now acts like a jackpot machine.

Meanwhile, Guy has “infatuation at first sight” when he sees a mysterious woman (played by Jodie Comer) on a motorcycle and armed with a gun on the street. She wears the special eyeglasses. She seems to be independent and fearless. And she’s wearing an outfit (white button-down shirt with black trousers, suspenders and thigh-high boots) that looks like a costume rejected by Charlize Theron’s badass assassin character in 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.”

Guy is convinced that this mystery female on a motorcycle is the woman of his dreams. Guy and this woman eventually meet. She calls herself Molotov Girl, but she’s really a British avatar for an American video game developer named Millie Rusk. Molotov Girl wears her black hair worn in a bob, while Millie has long blonde hair.

In the real world, Millie is embroiled in a messy lawsuit with Soonami Studios, the video game company that released Free City, a game that has become a big hit for Soonami. Millie is suing because she claims that Soonami stole intellectual property that is the basis of Free City. Back in 2015, Millie and her former business partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (played by Joe Keery) were considered hot up-and-coming video game developers of a game called Life Itself.

Soonami’s greedy and corrupt founder/CEO named Antwan (played by Taika Waititi) bought the rights to Life Itself (one of the most boring video game titles in history) for Soonami, and then promptly shelved Life Itself, only to release the game under the name Free City. Why isn’t Keys suing Soonami too? Because he now works for Soonami as a programmer, but he spends much of his work time actually being a customer support representative. Keys’ best friend at the company is a coder with a sarcastic personality named Mouser (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), who worships Antwan and does pretty much anything Antwan tells Mouser to do.

Why is Millie spending so much time playing Free City using the avatar Molotov Girl? Because she secretly wants to find certain proof that the game has the intellectual property that was stolen from Millie and Keys. Meanwhile, Guy becomes emboldened by his newfound powers due to the special eyeglasses. He starts doing things (many of them heroic) of his own free will, and his character becomes a worldwide sensation. Free City game players around the world have given him the nickname Blue Shirt Guy because of the blue shirt that Guy wears to work every day.

Not everyone is a fan of Blue Shirt Guy, of course. Antwan is furious because he thinks Blue Shirt Guy is a major “bug” (or error) in the game. There’s a kind of a silly sequence of Keys and Mouser disguising themselves with avatars to go into the Free City game and to try find out why Guy, a character a non-player character (also known as an NPC), seems to be acting of his own free will. Keys is dressed as a cop, while Mouser is dressed up in a ridiculous-looking pink rabbit costume. Why is Mouser dressed like he’s at a kids’ costume party? Just because he felt like it.

In fact, much of “Free Guy” consists of half-baked ideas thrown in between the hackneyed action scenes. There’s a stretched-out subplot about getting to a certain person’s stash house. There’s another subplot about how Soonami is about to release a Free City sequel called Free City: Carnage (also known as Free City 2), so there’s a race against time involving the release date.

The budding romance between Guy and Molotov Girl looks kind of icky because he comes across more like her dorky, much-older brother rather than a potential boyfriend. Guy is in his 40s, while Molotov Girl/Millie is in her 20s. It’s yet another Hollywood movie where the male lead actor gets a female love interest who’s at least 15 to 20 years younger.

In an attempt to gloss over this big age difference, there’s monotonous repetition of how Guy and Millie have some superficial things in common. They both love Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit song “Fantasy,” bubblegum ice cream and playing on swings. How old are these people again? Twelve? “Fantasy” is played enough times in the movie that it will get stuck in your head after the movie is over. And that’s not a good thing if you don’t like the song.

“Free Guy” is yet another Hollywood action movie where the cast members who get top billing are several men and only one woman. Comer is the only woman with a significant speaking role in the movie, and her Moltov Girl/Millie character is severely underdeveloped. Moltovgirl/Millie doesn’t have a life outside of anything to do with how the male characters affect her.

The featured male characters in “Free Guy” have friends and/or co-workers, while Millie does not. And the movie tries to make Millie look like some kind of feminist gaming prodigy, but everything she’s shown accomplishing in this movie is because she got help from a man. People who are fans of Comer because of her stellar, Emmy-winning work in “Killing Eve” will be disappointed at how limited her character is in “Free Guy.” The character of Millie, just like Molotov Girl, is just a hollow avatar who was created to be a sidekick for a male character who gets most of the glory.

As for Keys, he is portrayed as a wimpy and shy “nice guy.” But looking at his actions, Keys really has dubious morals and shaky loyalty, because he will go along with anyone who will benefit him in some way. He betrayed Millie by working for their enemy, and he doesn’t support her in her lawsuit to get justice for all the hard work that they did. And to make matters worse, Keys wasn’t even given a lofty position at Soonami. He’s now essentially a low-paid customer service representative at Soonami, where he is treated like dirt by rude and condescending Antwan.

It’s supposed to make viewers feel sorry for Keys, because the company is wasting his talent. But it just makes Keys look like a fool who’s being taken advantage of because his own bad choices. There are other companies he could work for besides the one that screwed over Keys and Millie. But if he worked for another company, there wouldn’t be the predictable “inside man” plot development that you know is part of this movie. There’s a trite character arc for Keys that’s extremely phony and doesn’t feel deserved.

There are fundamental plot holes in “Free Guy,” because it’s obvious that the filmmakers don’t want anyone watching the movie to think too much. For example, if Free City is so popular worldwide, and the point of the game is for players to create as much violent chaos as possible in Free City, then there would be a lot more death and destruction in Free City than what’s presented in this movie. Free City looks too pristine and orderly, as if hardly anyone is playing this game, which contradicts the movie’s premise that Free City is supposed to be a worldwide hit.

Much of the plot is based on Millie’s lawsuit against Soonami, but “Free Guy” purposely keeps things vague. Don’t expect any mention of the fact that it’s very common for corporations to buy the rights to intellectual property from independent creators and then just shelve it. And buying the rights also means buying any patents associated with the intellectual property and the right to release the intellectual property under a new name. In all likelihood in the real world, Millie doesn’t have a legitimate case for her lawsuit.

“Free Guy” also muddles the logic of how Millie needs to be an avatar in a video game in order to find the coding proof that she needs. Any good computer programmer/video game developer would have kept that coding proof, even after the intellectual property had been sold. But this movie isn’t about being realistic or logical. And that’s excusable if the characters and story had been much better than the unimaginative stereotypes and uninspired dialogue in “Free Guy.”

Keery and Ambudkar play the typical video game nerds. Howery plays the typical loyal best friend. Waititi plays the typical over-the-top villain. Waititi, who is naturally funny, tries to do his best with terrible lines of dialogue, but even he can’t overcome how stilted and awkward everyone looks in what are supposed to be hilarious scenes.

Reynolds has done plenty of action films and comedies where his character starts out as an underdog and then becomes a celebrated hero. It’s all so mind-numbingly monotonous, because he doesn’t do anything new as an actor in “Free Guy,” which is far from his best movie. The stale jokes in “Free Guy” seem like they were programmed by a computer from the 1990s.

The movie’s action scenes and visual effects are so basic and forgettable. One of the “Free Guy” trailers revealed that Guy fights a giant He-Man-ripoff version of himself, so this trailer reveal ruins that surprise. There are a few “surprise” celebrity cameos in the movie that don’t have much of an impact. Channing Tatum pops up in a scene, but he wears out his welcome with his one-note character. Chris Evans has a cameo that lasts a few seconds and should get some quick laughs.

“Free Guy” (from 20th Century Studios) is such a soulless and corporate movie that it has shameless plugging of movies from other Disney-owned studios. There’s “Star Wars”-influenced light saber fighting, in a nod to Disney-owned Lucasfilm. And there’s a reference to Captain America, the superhero character that Evans portrayed in several movies from Disney-owned Marvel Studios. No references to Disney princesses though, because the filmmakers of “Free Guy” want men to dominate in this movie.

Movies like 1982’s “Tron” and 2018’s “Ready Player One” have shown how it’s possible to be creative in a movie about people who transport themselves into a video game and end up having real connections with characters in the game. “Free Guy” could have brought a clever comedic spin to this concept, but the movie is just a messy compilation of lousy jokes and garbled plot developments. There are lot of video games that are better than a junkpile movie like “Free Guy.”

20th Century Studios will release “Free Guy” in U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021.