Free Guy movie review: Ryan Reynolds action comedy is stylish, confident, and exuberant

Disney’s latest is the kind of surefire blockbuster that will have both cinema-goers and cinema-owners smiling from ear to ear.

Aditya Mani Jha September 13, 2021 08:34:58 IST

3.5/5

The initial years of Hollywood’s engagement with the world of video games were marked by a decidedly grim tonality: think Tron (1982), where the protagonists are zapped inside of a gladiatorial computer game, forced to participate in battles-to-the-death. Towards the 90s, as straight adaptations of video games (Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter) started to be made, the emphasis was still very much on the action and the sound effects and the over-the-top mythologies. But these movies took themselves much less seriously than Tron; they understood that at least part of the point was to tap into the grown-up geeks market (20 years since then, look how Marvel has dominated the business with this simple starting point).

And now we have Free Guy, a Disney movie that sets upon itself the task of being a one hundred per cent goofy, slapstick, unthreatening video game adventure — which also wants to make occasional points about desensitisation to violence, misogyny at the workplace, megalomaniac game developers and other assorted ugliness emanating from the gaming industry over the last decade or so. Impressively, it succeeds in both those aims to a large extent.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a bank teller who discovers that the world he’s living in isn’t real; he’s a non-playing character (NPC) within Free City, the latest blockbuster game designed by Soonami Games’ eccentric, obnoxious Head Developer Antwan (Taika Watiti). In the lawless, anarchic world of Free City, NPCs are cannon fodder for players who slap, maim, kidnap or shoot them to gain points and levels; up until now Guy and everyone around him, including his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) go about their pre-programmed functions with single-minded focus, resigned to being in looped days and nights.

Free Guy movie review Ryan Reynolds action comedy is stylish confident and exuberant

Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer in a still from Free Guy

This life-changing discovery comes to Guy courtesy Millie Rusk (Judie Comer) and Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery). Millie and Keys are trying to find proof that Antwan stole the code of Free City off a game called Free Life that the duo had made, where players would not shoot characters, but would instead watch AIs interact in a virtual environment. Keys now works for Antwan while Millie, through her in-game avatar Molotov Girl, searches for proof against Antwan in Free City’s landscapes.

When Guy decides to ‘level up’ like a real-world player and defy the diktats of Antwan, these storylines converge with an explosion of video-gamey goodness: dazzling VFX sequences with nods to films as disparate as Inception, Captain America, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and The Lego Movie. Director Shawn Levy knows that these thrill-a-second action-comedy sequences are the film’s bulwark and he executes these scenes gleefully. Guy discovering leaping shoes, his encounter with the “God mode”, the bubble suit — they are all very funny, very joyfully written moments and Levy extracts the maximum mileage out of them, trust me.

His cast is also on top form: Ryan Reynolds is as winsome as ever. To an extent, his character Guy has been written as the easy-to-spot opposite of Deadpool; a gratuitously polite pre-modern antidote to a gratuitously sarcastic postmodern anti-hero.

This could have been, potentially, a too-clever-by-half situation but Reynolds allays such fears instantly with a characteristically confident, energetic performance. He even finds the time for some competently portrayed pathos towards the end.

Judie Comer (from the magnificent Killing Eve) is impressive, too, as developer and gaming genius Millie Rusk. Her story arc, especially Antwan’s credit-stealing, is a reflection of recent headlines, of the many workplace scandals that have plagued the gaming industry (like the allegations of toxic and misogynist work culture at Blizzard, for example).

Free Guy movie review Ryan Reynolds action comedy is stylish confident and exuberant

Taika Watiti, meanwhile, has always been a naturally gifted comedian and his improvisational style works well for his character Antwan, a self-absorbed hack with delusions of grandeur. There is great joy in watching him try and fail to do a kip-up, or singsong ‘you’re fireeeeeeed’ at his employees, or the other thousand-and-one sad, pathetic, bullying things he does here. There’s a bit of Watiti’s own film What We Do in the Shadows in this performance, especially since Antwan, like the vampires at the heart of that film, is also a coward trying his damndest to act like the tough guy. Of course, there are some things that a Disney film cannot make jokes about with a straight face — sequel-mania is one of them, you’d imagine. Watiti takes a stab anyway (“IP and sequels is what they want”) and it really does not work, I’m afraid.

However, corny missteps like that one are a rarity for Free Guy, which also benefits from a couple of enterprising cameos, including a hilarious one by Channing Tatum. Stylish, confident and exuberant in its humour, Disney’s latest is the kind of surefire blockbuster that will have both cinema-goers and cinema-owners smiling from ear to ear.

Rating: 3.5/5

Free Guy releases this Friday, 17 September in Indian cinemas.

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