FREE GUY— 4 STARS
Man, there’s something about Ryan Reynolds. He’s special in a way that can’t be quantified in one word. As you will see in Free Guy, merely saying “funny” is way too plain. There’s more radiating in him, and it’s a complete mental, verbal, and physical effort, no matter the wacky material. I think I know just the term.
LESSON #1: COMMITMENT TO THE BIT— Ryan Reynolds is the kind of actor to “see through any comic idea or invention you begin to its conclusion.” The Canadian can take shitty ideas and flimsy scripts and add impenetrable charm. Give him a great idea and a dynamite script and he takes the performance and film even further. Free Guy might not all be great and dynamite, but it’s a silly concept made entirely irresistible by its lead star.
In Free Guy, Reynolds doesn’t have a name. He is called by his description: Blue Shirt Guy. He wakes up with routines, holds down a job as a bank teller, and has regular friends, including a security guard played by Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery. Be that as it may, Blue Shirt Guy is not real and, quite clearly, neither is his perfectly sunny urban world of gallivanting criminals, daily bank robberies, and rampant property damage. He is an inessential NPC of an open world crime-and-adventure video game called Free City.
The “real” people in Free City are the created characters steered by human gamers from their PCs, headsets, and couches to tear up town for their exotic, game-earned accoutrements. This popular empire, spurring all kinds of social media attention and involvement along the way, is owned by an eccentric and greedy game designer named Antwan, played by Jojo Rabbit Academy Award winner and old Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern co-star Taika Waititi. While he counts his profits, the daily workings are run by underlings like former game inventor Keys (Stranger Things member Joe Kerry) and the butt-kissing Mouser (rapper/actor Utkarsh Ambudkar).
LESSON #2: SWEET FANTASIES ARE EXACTLY THAT— Blue Shirt Guy longs to do more than his basic programming and pursue the dreamy, ass-kicking female character named Molotov Girl (Killing Eve Emmy winner Jodie Comer). When he breaks up one of the mission robberies and snags the sunglasses that make you a true player, he begins to see the game underneath his reality and drastically changes his lifestyle. He takes his “Don’t just have a good day, have a great day” mantra and starts fighting crime, living his dreams, and tapping his toes (and ours) to a classic and ever-present Mariah Carey pop hit.
The emergence of Blue Shirt Guy disrupts Free City and takes the internet fandom by storm. All of the redundancy-breaking free-wheelin’ is the result of a self-modifying wrinkle of code inside Free City developed from another game invented by Keys and Molotov Girl’s human counterpart Millie. Together, with the sentient Blue Shirt Guy’s help, the big goal becomes to take Antwan down before the Free City sequel erases both the happy glitches and the revolutionary evidence.
If all of that sounds way more adventurous and substantial than Free Guy’s inescapable, and pandemic-delayed marketing campaign, you would be right. Rolling on the chariot of peppy special effects across fields of planted gags orchestrated by proven hitmaker Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Stranger Things), Free Guy strides through a very imaginative world of detailed delight. Extra coins were earned by production designer Ethan Tobman, visual effects supervisor Swen Gillburg, and visual effects producer Viet Luu.
LESSON #3: HOW DARE YOU CHANGE AND BE DIFFERENT— Better than the eye-popping visuals are the meaningful themes aimed to hit our obsessed gamer culture square in the hard drive. The impassioned “what matters/what’s real” arcs from Matt Lieberman’s (Scoob!) 2016 Black List spec script polished by comic book movie veteran Zak Penn (X2: X-Men United) yoke entertaining topicality and earn solid audience investment. It can get plenty preachy by the end, but these intelligent attempts within Free Guy sure beat the alternative of mindless excuses to throw stars through stunts.
Once again, what’s winsome and bodacious in Free Guy begins with Ryan Reynolds. From Van Wilder and Deadpool and everything hit-and-miss in-between, he combines naivety, enthusiasm, and dorkiness to a vitality level that is nearly second to none among his comedian peers. Ryan’s verbal gift-of-gab has long been legendary, and his go-for-broke physical comedy skills on top of that mouth are the true, full commitment to the bit.
The wildest thing about all that awkwardness is, lickety split, Ryan Reynolds can produce a smile, eyebrow raise, or clever comeback and make all that created incompetence morph into coolness. Even greater, he can flash a smoldering pause, squint, flex, or peel off his shirt and make the dorky coolness come across as fucking hot.
I don’t think another male actor, now or in the past, can achieve Ryan’s kind of range in such singular roles. The closest female equivalent of gorgeous geekness is the semi-retired Cameron Diaz. The other fledgling guys are either nerds that can’t look convincingly studly or hunks without anywhere close to an interesting personality. Reynolds has been doing both for over twenty years.
Free Guy is the fullest display of Ryan Reynolds’ total powers since The Proposal (sorry, no one wanted to bang the scarred superhero in a mask, taking away half that famed draw). His zip makes those around him better as well. Jodie Comer glides as a spirited instigator for the movie’s inside and outside worlds. Though a noticeable 16 years Ryan’s junior, Comer’s Milly is a female cohort written by Lieberman and Penn with plenty of self-generated confidence, a very welcome trait.
That said, Free Guy is still a movie very much bursting with Ryan Reynolds. For many, that’s going to be too much. And if it’s not too much Ryan Reynolds, it may become too much Taika Waititi next. He is plainly there riffing and improvising his ass off, unshackled from any formal script. With his bubbly fiendishness, Taika is a bombastic gas as the movie’s chirping heavy. Occasionally, though, every fourth or fifth quippy pun he slings lands with a bit of a thud. Nevertheless, the combined heroic and creative energy of this movie, and all involved in pushing it, cannot help but keep the hoots and hollers coming in a very steady, pixelated stream.