Rebecca’s Take

As a movie fan, I enjoy several genres of film. I’m always up for a pulse-pounding action flick with breathless set pieces and top-notch special effects. I like good-natured comedies that make me belly laugh. I’m a sucker for a breezy rom-com with likable leads who I can root for. And I have a soft spot for films where a character embarks on a journey of self-discovery, growing and maturing along the way.

I found all of this in “Free Guy,” one of the best movies of the summer. Pushed back over a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the charming video-game flick takes the genre to a new level, unlocking a crowd-pleasing blockbuster with a heart. It’s insightful, exciting, hilarious and heartfelt, and I loved every minute of it.

“Free Guy” is about a fictional video game, but you don’t have to be a gamer to understand the story. The film follows Guy (Ryan Reynolds), an NPC (non-player character) in a multiplayer game called “Free City.” While sunglass-wearing players wreak havoc across the city, Guy gets up every day, puts on his blue shirt and heads to work at the bank with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). The twist is that Guy doesn’t know he’s a character in a video game.

Guy starts questioning his humdrum existence after he sees Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a player on a mission. The edgy Molotov Girl is the avatar of Millie Rusk, who believes the code for “Free City” was stolen from a game that she and her former partner, Keys (Joe Keery), designed. The two are on the outs as Keys now works for Soonami, the developer of “Free City.”

As Millie searches for proof inside the game, Guy breaks away from his programming and becomes a hero, leveling up by saving people. But as Guy finds his confidence and attraction to Millie growing, his world is in danger. Gaining viral fame as “Blue Shirt Guy,” Guy must save Free City before the game’s sequel, “Free City 2,” erases the previous game – and all its characters – from existence.

Fun and fast-paced, “Free Guy” has something for everyone. It’s an action film and a comedy, a romance and a philosophical look at life, and it juggles its many plates beautifully. Maybe the film works as a video game movie because it’s not based on one. Usually, films based on video games have a thin plot, relying on cool action sequences to bulk up the movie. “Free Guy” has plenty of spectacular set pieces, but it’s so much more.

With its eye-popping visuals and clever script, “Free Guy” fleshes out its world and characters in rich, vivid detail. Director Shawn Levy, known for the heartwarming “Night at the Museum” films (which I adore), brings the same sense of wonder to “Free Guy.” When Guy steals a pair of sunglasses and puts them on, he can now see the extra layer to his world that the players can see. There’s dollar signs here and extra lives there, with bonuses for the taking as Guy rescues other NPCs. The computer-generated special effects are extraordinary, helping to distinguish the video-game world from the real one. The climactic battle delivers one jaw-dropping fight and obstacle after another. The screenplay is co-written by Zak Penn, who wrote the similarly themed “Ready Player One.” While the ambitious 2018 film was just OK, “Free Guy” checks off all the boxes that “Ready Player One” tried but couldn’t quite fill in.

As the face of “Free Guy,” Reynolds brings his trademark humor and charisma in spades, delivering one of his best performances yet. With his off-the-cuff quips and knack for slapstick, the film showcases Reynolds doing what he does best. The actor excels at the physicality the role requires. But the comedian also taps into Guy’s optimism and naivete, which endear him to viewers. As Guy searches for a bigger purpose, the audience is on his side. Reynolds can also turn surprisingly emotional when the scene calls for it, adding the right amount of dramatic heft.

But the standout may be Comer. The “Killing Eve” actress, known for playing the delightfully deranged assassin Villanelle, shines in a dual role here. Comer is the connecting thread between the video-game world and the real world. The talented actress is fearless and fearful, determined but worried as she’s caught in between both worlds. As Molotov Girl, the actress shares a palpable chemistry with Reynolds, first challenging Guy and then helping him. But as Millie, Comer also shares a lovely chemistry with Keery as the two work together to find the evidence they need. The trio form a believable love triangle as Millie finds herself falling for Guy while reconnecting with Keery.

The rest of the cast is stellar in their roles. Keery, from “Stranger Things,” shows he has the potential to become a leading man in film. The young actor’s role grows throughout “Free Guy,” from a standoffish programmer to a caring, take-charge ally. After his breakout performance in “Get Out,” Howery excels at playing Guy’s loyal best friend. The film celebrates friendship and the important role it plays in our lives. Playing against type, Taika Waititi hams it up as a bad guy as Antoine, the Soonami owner with questionable business ethics. The film also features the best cameo I’ve seen, maybe ever. Get ready to pick your jaw off the floor afterward.

As fun as “Free Guy” is, it’s not afraid to ask the big life questions. Is there more to life? Does what we do matter? It’s refreshing to see a video game movie delve so deep into the daily grind. Like Guy, “Free Guy” wants us to ask ourselves the same questions to make sure we’re fulfilling our potential. “Free Guy” also touches upon some social commentary, asking why society relishes the violence in video games when there’s so much of it in the real world. The film doesn’t hit viewers over the head with its observations. However, “Free Guy” makes the point that we’re stronger together after a divisive last few years.

There’s little to dislike about “Free Guy.” There are some gaps in logic as the characters should have picked up on a few key clues earlier in the story. However, this didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film.

“Free Guy” may be the summer’s biggest surprise. The blockbuster exceeded my expectations, giving me much more than a typical video-game flick. I laughed and I cried. The enormously enjoyable film combines thrilling action, laugh-out-loud comedy, sweet romance and introspective musings. Reynolds cements his superstar status, and Comer and Keery prove they are destined for bigger things. With a sequel now greenlit, hopefully moviegoers will be able to plug into this fascinating world again.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Jodie Comer, left, and Joe Keery star in “Free Guy.” (Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios via AP)

Joe’s Take

After a summer without blockbusters because of the coronavirus pandemic, quality fun is back at theaters. In back-to-back-to-back weeks, “Jungle Cruise,” “The Suicide Squad” and now “Free Guy” hit the big screen. While each is fun in its own way, the starting point for their success proves similar — build a great cast and go from there.

Let’s start with the duos. “Jungle Cruise” had Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt, “The Suicide Squad” starred Idris Elba and Margot Robbie and “Free Guy” brought in Ryan Reynolds (Guy) and Jodie Comer (Millie/Molotov Girl).

Reynolds is an established superstar who is still riding the high of the “Deadpool” franchise he brought to life. He fits the film perfectly with his charisma, humor and action experience. He’s a likable actor and a likable person viewers generally want to root for.

This is the first movie I saw Comer play a big role (she also portrays Rey’s mother in “Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.” She’s extraordinary in “Killing Eve,” earning two nominations and one win at the Emmys. Comer didn’t disappoint here either. She has a lot more to do than Reynolds as she needs a lot of range to play her role. Because her persona in the game, “Free City,” is different from her real-world self, she switches between a British and an American accent. She is also essentially an action hero in the game, while in the real world she mostly sits at a computer. It’s a role that requires a lot of range that she effortlessly nails.

Joe Keery (Keys) of “Stranger Things” fame also sneaks in this film after not being a part of the advertising and plays a big part. He shines alongside Comer as her former partner. Lil Rel Howery (Buddy) is back in the 2021 summer movie season and plays a much more important role than I thought. He brings the comedy, as he does in most projects he’s in, but he also proves essential to the film’s heart. His relationship with Reynolds’ character makes us laugh and brings out emotion. I was shocked at how powerful a moment between the two was at an important time in the film. Howery perfectly captures the tone.

Acclaimed writer/director Taika Waititi (Antoine) knows how to act, too. He’s the villain of the film and he’s having a blast. He’s hamming it up beautifully as the jerk antagonist.

While the cast is perfect, the cameos add even more to the fun. Always game for a cameo, Channing Tatum (Avatar) embraces his few minutes in the film and brings some laughs. The others I don’t want to ruin, but make sure to listen to some of the voices. I didn’t realize some of the stars who worked on the film until I looked at IMDB afterward. There are also some fun Easter eggs, and Disney definitely reminded us it bought 20th Century Fox.

On top of fun, this movie is smart. One thing I noticed was Reynolds’ character tells a few awful and inappropriate jokes. However, he says them because the users in the game talk like that. It also foreshadows what is to come. Little things like that make the movie better.

The visual effects looked great. The color and the gaming world really popped. It also has a great pace.

The film’s biggest surprise was its heart. “Free guy” made me laugh, and it almost made me cry. The relationships work beautifully and add to the emotion. The writing makes the film’s heart that much better. There are high stakes that keep the audience engaged, parallels to real-world issues and a group of people trying to better themselves and strive to be unique. I expected the fun, but keeping the audience emotionally engaged makes movies better.

One thing that bothered me was that there were threads of a relationship that the audience knows exactly where it’s going. It just seemed too obvious to me. Also, I don’t know if I can knock the film for this, but the plot is oddly similar to “The Lego Movie.” Guy is very much like Emmet and his character introduction is pretty much the same. It was still funny and it still worked though, so I guess that was more of an observation.

“Free Guy” proves a great time at the theater. A stellar cast boosts a solid script and crisp direction. The movie definitely brings the fun, but it also respects its audience with smart humor and relevant themes to go with a big heart. One of my biggest takeaways of the 2021 movie season will be the summer of fun with “Free Guy” at its core.

4 out of 5 stars