Disney’s Free Guy, the last movie to be made under the then-20th Century Fox banner, hits theaters on August 13th and it’s about to be one of the favorite movies of an entire generation. It’s certainly one of the best movies of the year thus far. Directed by Shawn Levy (Stranger Things, Date Night), Free Guy was one of the films most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its release date being bumped three times before landing on this month. Subsequently, it feels as though this movie has been marketed for the past year and a half straight, with the cast gamely appearing in multiple promos and teaser videos.
That cast is led by Ryan Reynolds, who plays Guy, a sweet, affable, easygoing bank teller who lives in Free City. His best friend is Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a security guard at the bank. Guy’s life is peaceful and routine, if you ignore the daily bank robberies, the regular vehicular manslaughter, the constant muggings, the drive-bys, and the egregious murder: turns out Guy, and everyone he knows, are just NPCs in a video game called Free City by gaming company Soonami and its publisher Antwan (Taika Waititi).
One day, Guy sees the fierce and beautiful Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), and he suddenly yearns to break free from his routine. Soon, he’s flipping the game script around, and taking on the bad guys by being a good guy, saving other Free City folk from crimes perpetrated by the players, all the while not realizing he’s in a video game. The problem is that NPCs are supposed to obey the rules, and Guy’s sudden unwitting free will threatens to wreck the game. Meanwhile, Millie (also Jodie Comer), the real-life person behind the Molotov Girl character, and Keys (Joe Keery), two genius game designers, race to figure out why Guy suddenly has a mind of his own while Antwan threatens to shut the whole game down, with programmer Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) torn in between wanting to please Antwan and his loyalty to Keys.
After so long a wait, was it worth it? Was Disney right to keep it in theaters instead of sending it to Disney+? Here are three reasons to see it when it hits theaters.
1. It’s Funny – Really, REALLY Funny
For better or worse, the marketing has retreaded a lot of the same few minutes of footage in various trailers and clips. This is possibly by design; the movie is so full of Easter eggs and unexpected jokes that it would be hard not to give them away in the trailers. But understand that this movie is far funnier than what’s being shown in the promo footage. Much of its humor derives from improv king Ryan Reynolds doing what he does. Unlike most of his other roles in which he uses his sarcasm and deadpan in the guise of being a cool character, however, he deploys it here around a wide-eyed earnestness that makes his delivery of certain lines hit differently, the humor not deriving from snark but from Guy’s naivety as he struggles to pretend as though he’s on the same page as the players around him. As Antwan, Taika Waititi is his opposite, with Waititi clearly relishing playing an over-the-top douchebag. Neither Waititi nor Reynolds have ever been known to take themselves too seriously on screen, and Waititi mean bro tantruming his way across the screen as he grows more and more diabolical is a great deal of fun, if not always necessarily rational. But with Waititi unsuccessfully trying to do kip-ups on screen, who cares about rational?
Another good portion of the movie’s humor is derived from sight gags, with Levy (not to mention writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn) pushing the visual storytelling of the movie to the max. Violence that would be egregious and gory in reality turn into cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote accidents, with rag doll physics adding an extra layer of absurd humor to the action of the film.
There are also two excellent cameos that I am shocked Disney has managed to largely keep under wraps and I genuinely hope the usual spoiler sites keep quiet about them for the next week because audiences deserve to not have them spoiled. One is less a cameo than a small role, with the character appearing in two extended sequences, the second of which devolves into glorious weirdness. The second cameo lasts but a second but is so unexpected it quite literally made the critic sitting a few seats down from me choke on his drink as the theater roared with laughter. It’s well worth going into Free Guy blind as so much of the humor of the film is derived from unexpected moments.
2. It’s Surprisingly Inventive & Clever
Multiple movies have tried the conceit of video game or artificial simulation vs. the real world, but few have pulled it off quite as well as Free Guy. If Lieberman and Penn aren’t gamers themselves, then they at least did their research about how the gaming world really works. Granted, it helps that the movie got several notable real-life gamers to cameo off and on throughout the movie. But Free Guy also does something that video game movies rarely do: it trusts that its audience actually understands video games. So many movies built around this premise play around solely with the CG video game aspect while ignoring the real world that supports it, but Free Guy incorporates gaming culture and makes it part of the movie. It’s always obvious when screenwriters and directors write about and direct a subculture they don’t actually understand, but Free Guy doesn’t dumb things down for the audience, instead assuming (likely rightly) that the majority of moviegoers in its target demographic will understand terms like “backward compatible” and “skin” and the concept of stolen code buried in an older build.
The way in which Guy gains sentience is also done in a clever, fully thought-out way that aligns with modern-day trends in technology and computer science. Levy and his team clearly approached the story from the perspective of how it might actually unfold in real life, both in-game and in the real world. Every seemingly implausible moment in the movies has a firm basis in sound logic and real-life technology. Yet, the small moments and details are smartly executed, too. It’s not just the overall concept that is rooted in real tech, but in-game interactions are also designed in such a way that makes it apparent the team behind the film spent a lot of time researching and incorporating the help of consultants from the worlds of gaming, technology, and machine learning. The result is that even though it’s as visually and physically “impossible” as any superhero movie, Free Guy nonetheless has a surprisingly grounded feel, as though its events may one day unfold in reality, and not too far in the distant future, either.
3. It’s The Kind Of Blockbuster Hollywood So Rarely Makes Now
Free Guy is something rare in Hollywood: a tentpole that isn’t a reboot, sequel, or based on a pre-existing IP. While it certainly has plenty of nods to other IP and borrows from concepts used before, it’s wholly original in story and the way in which it’s executed gives it a surprising freshness. While there certainly could be a sequel if Disney saw fit, the movie is wrapped up neatly enough to stand on its own as an entirely self-contained story. Nor is there a post-credits scene hinting at a potential sequel already in the works. Mind you, there’s nothing inherently wrong with franchises, but it’s really refreshing to watch a movie that simply wants to tell a sweet, entertaining story rather than plant half a dozen setups for future movies. It’s also refreshing to watch a movie that tells a story fully rather than only telling half a story because it’s being positioned as the springboard for a planned franchise. Not so with Free Guy. Every question is answered, every relationship resolved, every storyline completed. It stands as a reminder that studios still have the ability to make great, one-off movies.
Beyond that, there’s an earnest sweetness that is balanced with self-awareness. Despite the gravity-defying physics of the in-game world, it’s not about a hero archetype with superpowers but about a normal, naive guy who simply wants more out of his life. A guy whose animating motivation (initially) isn’t about saving the world, but about falling head-over-heels in love with the girl of his dreams. Yet, it’s not brainless or without real emotional stakes, grappling with theoretical concepts such as what it really means to be “alive” and the nature of existence. The emotional impact is down to the stellar cast–in fact, I’d go so far as to say this might be Ryan Reynolds’ best work in years with him staying earnest without ever tipping into cloyingly sappy. Guy is easy to root for thanks to Reynolds smartly playing his character straight and without a cheeky wink at the camera that one might expect from the actor who plays the fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool. In between the wacky hijinks and jokes, there are themes of friendship and innocent love and doing what’s right–about making people feel a little bit better, rather than worse; the film challenges you to leave your cynicism at the door. There’s not an ounce of “gritty” or “dark” as far as the eye can see in Free Guy, and it’s a better movie for it. In modern-day Hollywood, that’s a miracle.
Free Guy is in theaters Friday, August 13.