Free Guy, review: a candy-coated mix of The Matrix and It’s a Wonderful Life

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Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios
Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios
  • Cert 12A, 115 min. Dir: Shawn Levy

Deep in the source code of Free Guy lurks a circuit-poppingly audacious idea. Shawn Levy’s film is, on the surface, a shiny, noisy homage to video games such as Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto. But remove that outer-casing and it becomes clear he is trying to smuggle into multiplexes a candy-coated hybrid of It’s a Wonderful Life, The Matrix and Steven Spielberg’s A.I.

Free Guy isn’t quite as life-affirming as the Night at the Museum director wants it to be, that sweetness occasionally running to cloying (there are a few too many speeches about the importance of friendship and true love). Nonetheless this tale of a character from a video game – an “NPC” in the lingo – who achieves self-awareness has an electrifying earnestness that’s hugely refreshing in the era of franchises hefting around the dead weight of their own mythology.

The Duracell bunny powering the entire endeavour is Ryan Reynolds. As the eponymous Free Guy, he could light up a football stadium with gosh-darn goofiness. “Guy” is a literal everyman who spends his days working in a bank while dodging heavily-armed combatants who wield flame-throwers and chuck grenades. And who, like clockwork, stage bank-heists many times each day.

These spreaders of havoc are, of course, video gamers doing their thing. “Guy” accepts the ultra-violence as part of life’s rich tapestry – until one day a woman walks by humming Mariah Carey’s Sweet Sweet Fantasy. She’s played by Jodie Comer, the Killing Eve actress seemingly cast on the strength of her ability to flit between accents at will.

In Free City she’s the Lara Croft-esque Molotov Girl, complete with diamond-cut Liz Hurley elocution. Out in the real world, she’s a Seattle nerd name Millie. In both incarnations she shares a mysterious connection with Free Guy, who is jolted into consciousness upon encountering the woman of his dreams.

Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios
Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios

Comer is one of the most magnetic stars around. However, she’s so good at shapeshifting that Hollywood doesn’t appear to quite know what do to with her. She excels here as online heroine and off-line underdog. But both characters are thinly written and don’t give her anything to get stuck into.

Very much getting stuck in is Taika Waititi as an evil video game mogul who dresses like a cyber-punk rapper and cares only about separating gamers from their money. The New Zealander is built like a prop forward, with super-sized charisma to match. Alas, in Free Guy his performance feels pitched at the wrong register. He’s exhaustingly maniacal when the movie could perhaps have done with something slightly more deadpan.

This, then, was ultimately always meant to be Reynolds’s rodeo. With Deadpool, he confirmed his credentials as that rare Hollywood A-lister with a turbo-charged gift for comedy. He’s just as funny as “Guy”, his malleable features flexing into Looney Tunes shapes as he comes into possession of magic sunglasses allowing his character view the world as gamers see it.

Video gaming culture has a wide puerile streak, and Free Guy isn’t afraid to lean into it. There’s lots of swearing and a few off-colour gags that seem aimed exclusively at 15- year-old Fortnite addicts. Yet alongside the bubblegum banter, it dances around deeper questions of free will and artificial intelligence.

Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios
Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy - 20th Century Studios

The conundrum of what happens when machines achieve self-awareness has fuelled everything from William Gibson’s Neuromancer to The Matrix, not to mention a lifetime supply of prog rock albums. And Free Guy engages meaningfully with the issue as Millie and her former programming partner (Stranger Things’s Joe Keery) wrestle with their part in the manifestation of machine consciousness within Free City.

That said, Levy ultimately wants to yank the heart-strings more than poke the grey matter. And as Free Guy breaks free from his programming and explores the world on its own terms, the film has lots to say about loyalty, friendship and love.

Arriving on the heels of Black Widow and Jungle Cruise, Free Guy, which is produced by Disney subsidiary Fox, represents the corporation’s latest attempt to awaken the box office from its post-Covid slumber. Tellingly, the studio has opted to put it out exclusively in cinemas rather than follow the Black Widow strategy of dual theatrical and streaming releases.

That perhaps speaks to a certain confidence in the Magic Kingdom that Levy has created something other than another deafening action-comedy. Free Guy brims with digital wizardry, and there are several broad winks towards Disney’s expanded universe of franchises. But under all the FX and quick-fire dialogue it has something all too rare in the tentpole-movie era: a soul.

In cinemas Friday August 13

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