By Lynn Venhaus
Clever, brimming with wit and good nature, “Free Guy” is one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.
An action video game, comic-book slate of heroes and villains and romantic comedy rolled into one, the plot focuses on a mild-mannered bank teller Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who discovers that he’s actually a NPC inside a brutal, open world video game. When he spontaneously decides to become his own hero, and proceeds to rewrite his story so that he saves the world — on his own terms, he unleashes a frantic race against time. Antwan (Taika Waititi), a megalomaniac tech mastermind, is hell-bent against Guy succeeding.
As one who isn’t a gamer – and had to look up what a NPC is (non-player character), I expected to be lost, but thanks to an engaging cast, I could not only keep up but also be entertained.
Set in a world of video game creation and role-playing, a town called Free City is where the action takes place, a busy burg with old-fashioned charm. Think Mayberry meets Metropolis.
Every day, the mayhem and mean streets one associates with video game action occurs as most everyone is trying to go about their daily lives. They deal with explosions, gunfire, criminals and stunts like it’s normal.
Guy’s jovial best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), is a security guard. The simple pleasure of a good cup of coffee makes their day, which includes a routine where they avoid gunshots, falling debris and hulking monsters.
Their oblivion and good hearts are refreshing, but of course, if there wasn’t a conflict, there would not be a movie. Can an action movie, particular in the sci-fi realm, be light-hearted?
“Free Guy” demonstrates that a little originality and a lot of technical acumen can produce a fizzy summer blockbuster not bogged down in high expectations.
As agreeable as cheery Guy is to watch going about his day, reminiscent of “The Truman Show,” waiting to pounce is a nefarious computer genius, Antwan. Waititi, the wildly talented actor-writer-director who won an Oscar for writing “JoJo Rabbit,” is gloriously over-the-top playing the devious guru who has underhandedly ripped off an enterprising programming whiz Keys (Joe Keery) and his resourceful co-creator Millie (Jodie Comer) by stealing their innovative life’s work.
Somehow, Guy switches up the rules and displays a mind of his own, which is unheard of in this universe. The whole world is watching as “Blue Shirt Guy” captures viewers/players’ hearts, and he is motivated because he is attracted to one of the tough female characters, also played by the winning Comer, Emmy winner for ‘Killing Eve.”
Game on! The action gets fast, furious – and fun. Shawn Levy has directed this in a high-spirited way. He’s known for the “Night at the Museum” franchise and the streaming TV show “Stranger Things,” and keeps the action moving and the story sharp.
The actor who has played Steve Harrington, Joe Keery, is a likable mild-mannered gamer and smart techie who is on to Antwan’s schemes. With the help of his cynical work pal Mouser, the well-cast Utkarsh Ambudkar, they’re one step ahead.
The cast appears to be ‘all in’ – and having a blast with the story’s playfulness. Howery, whose breakthrough was “Get Out” and has carved a niche as a good buddy, has a nice camaraderie with the everyman movie star Reynolds.
Reynolds is at his best as a good guy caught up in something he doesn’t understand. He has a knack for playing regular dudes under pressure, ready with a quip, and doesn’t shrink from saving the day. This role is more jocular, like DC’s “Deadpool,” his biggest hit, and he’s thoroughly charming.
“Free Guy” possesses a self-assured quality, and its veteran screenwriters know a thing or two about crowd-pleasers. Zak Penn, who sold his first script, “The Last Action Hero” when he was 23, has worked on films in the Marvel Comics Universe, including “X-Men 2” and “The Avengers,” and wrote “Ready Player One,” which bears a strong resemblance to the crux of “Free Guy.”
His co-writer Matt Lieberman has been working on such family-friendly fare as “The Christmas Chronicles” starring Kurt Russell as Santa Claus and the animated “The Addams Family” reboot.
Together, they have fashioned a breezy romp that’s well-suited for the big screen and makes nimble use of a crackerjack cast, who has splendidly mastered green screen acting.
“Free Guy,” which was slated for release last summer, is one of those rare August treats that unexpectedly has provided a delightful cinematic experience.
“Free Guy” is a 2021 action, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy directed by Shawn Levy and starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Taika Waititi, Joe Keery and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Rated: PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references, its run time is 1 hour, 55 minutes. It opened in theatres on Aug. 13. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.