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review

Ryan Reynolds stars as Guy in director Shawn Levy's Free Guy.

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  • Free Guy
  • Directed by Shawn Levy
  • Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn
  • Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer and Taika Waititi
  • Classification PG; 115 minutes
  • Opens Aug. 13 in theatres across Canada

“IP and sequels, that’s what the people want!” So bellows the big bad corporate villain of Free Guy, the new Ryan Reynolds action-comedy that, while not based on existing intellectual property nor a sequel to some existing enterprise, feels an awful lot like a franchise-in-waiting.

Like last month’s Space Jam: A New Legacy, which poked fun at the acting talents of athletes and the tendency of studios to exploit their catalogues – while at the same time relying upon exactly those things – there is a grating sense in Free Guy of having your cake and sequelizing it, too. It is one thing to be self-deprecating, quite another to use wink-wink-nudge-nudge gags to absolve yourself of any storytelling responsibility.

Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl and Ryan Reynolds as Guy in Free Guy.

Again, Free Guy is, technically, an original idea. So long as you can choke down the word “original” after throwing chunks of Wreck-It Ralph, The Truman Show, Gamer, The Lego Movie, Tron, Ready Player One, and even John Carpenter’s They Live, into a Cuisinart and hitting “pulse.”

Taking place in the bustling and chaotic Free City, director Shawn Levy’s new film focuses on mild-mannered bank teller Guy (Reynolds), who wakes up every day and enthusiastically goes about his humdrum routine, Everything Is Awesome-style. Guy eats his breakfast, orders his coffee, chats with his best friend (Lil Rey Howery), and then gets robbed, beaten or otherwise brutalized by the many criminals who run amok in the Chicago-meets-Grand Theft Auto metropolis. This is because, as we quickly discover, Free City is actually a video game, and Guy is a “non-player character,” or NPC, who exists only to satisfy the sociopathic desires of players in the real world.

But one day, Guy has a chance encounter with Millie (Jodie Comer), the avatar of one of the game’s original developers, which sets our hero off on a journey of sentience and self discovery. Can Guy, Millie, and fellow programmer Keys (Joe Keery) save Free City and enlighten the rest of the game’s NPCs before the evil game guru Antoine (Taika Waititi) destroys it all? Does Levy lean a little too much on the perfect-pop power of Mariah Carey’s Fantasy? Does Reynolds’s dialogue consist almost solely of rapid-fire, half-successful, fully-smirky similes (“It’s like my tongue made a baby with the sunrise!”)?

The sheer busyness of Free Guy serves to distract from the fact that nothing on display has more than a kilobyte of emotional impact.

You’ll have to press play to find out – though something tells me that seasoned moviegoers already know the answers. Which doesn’t make Free Guy a slog or a bore, exactly. Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night, but also the genuinely underrated Real Steel) keeps things zipping along nicely, even managing the tricky task of balancing screen-time in Free City with the outside world. And every single member of the cast is all-in on the high-low concept – especially sometimes-filmmaker Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit), who seems almost too skilled at playing a louche dilettante.

But the sheer busyness of Free Guy – and, come its final act, dependence on corporate-synergy gags to earn its biggest laughs – all serve to distract from the fact that nothing on display has more than a kilobyte of emotional impact.

Free Guy is here, it repeatedly reminds us, to have a good time, not a long-franchise time. But there is something so overwhelmingly corporate and safe about the thing that you can see the glimmer of a brand-new cinematic universe in every twinkle of Reynolds’s dreamy hazel eyes. Game over, man. Game over.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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