Free Guy: When the game starts fighting back

Ryan Reynolds plays a video game character who’s not going to take it any more

Free Guy
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Director: Shawn Levy
Cert: 12A
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi
Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins

I don’t suppose anybody has much wondered about the interior lives of the non-player characters who give so generously of their viscera in video games such as Grand Theft Auto. They are there to be shot and then reversed over when the mission proves too difficult or boring.

This diverting film from Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum and Stranger Things, makes a modestly persuasive case for asking the question. A sickeningly perky Ryan Reynolds plays just such a character — a bank worker repeatedly threatened in hold-ups — who one day decides to break out from the rut and experience the less inhibited life of those avatars controlled by real-life players.

He doesn't quite know he's doing that. Like the protagonist of The Truman Show, the efficiently named Guy thinks that this simulacrum, a game called Free City, is the real world. He escapes his daily grind and, at a remove, gets caught up in fleshy conspiracies. Jodie Comer plays a game designer named Millie — and, within Free City, a tough customer named Molotov Girl — who is eager to prove her ideas have been stolen. The digital naïf and the actual boffin form an unlikely double act.

There is a fair degree of fun to be had before the script gets too caught up in its own mythology. After Tron, Pixels, Wreck It Ralph and Ready Player One, the video game meta-movie is now a genre in itself, but Free Guy manages to find a few new things to say. In its treatment of a character who knows life only as it functions within a fictional construct, the film is as close to The Purple Rose of Cairo as it is to The Truman Show.


At its best, Free Guy is alert to the jolting contrasts between our dull world and the juiced up ones we enter on the PlayStation. Unfortunately, unlike Jeff Daniels in the Woody Allen flick, Guy never gets to expand beyond his narrowed carapace. He begins as a one-dimensional drone and ends as a one-and-a-half dimensional drone.

The star of the piece is surely Comer. Delivering the first of two mainstream supporting roles in 2021 (Ridley Scott’s tantalising The Last Duel is on the way), the Liverpudlian star of Killing Eve confirms her ability for winding taut irony around new kinds of cool. If we still have movie stars, then that is what Comer is set to become.

In cinemas from August 13th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist