The Inverse Review

Free Guy is the best original sci-fi movie of 2021. That’s a pretty low bar.

The first big original blockbuster of the year isn’t particularly original, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Ryan Reynolds is a franchise unto himself. Even when he’s not starring in recognizable IP like Marvel and Pokémon, fans know exactly what they’re getting from one of the actor’s big-screen vehicles: reliable action-comedy with an adjustable edge.

So while critics and fans may celebrate Free Guy as one of the only original stories to come out of a major studio in 2021, it’s not like Disney is taking a huge risk by releasing it. Even out of his Deadpool suit, Reynolds is still the same charming, bankable white guy who knows his way around a dirty joke.

Of course, Free Guy is more than just its star, but whether the movie would exist without him is up for debate. (Director Shawn Levy originally rejected the script before Reynolds pitched it to him directly.)

That’s not to discredit the rest of Free Guy’s impressively stacked cast or the surplus of visual wizardry that brings it all together. This is a movie overflowing with great comedic actors — Jodie Comer! Taika Waititi! Lil Rel Howery! Channing Tatum (in a dance-heavy cameo)! — and impressive CGI set pieces.

Director Shawn Levy with Taika Waititi, who plays an evil video game CEO. Disney

Free Guy aims for greatness on a conceptual level as well, asking big questions about the ethics of artificial intelligence and the business of video games. But it's held back by the lightweight snark of its own star — plus a few major plot holes. In the end, Free Guy feels like less than the sum of its parts.

The Truman Show meets The Matrix retold as a Fortnite special event
Putting on sunglasses reveals the truth about his world to Guy, a hapless video game NPC.Disney

Free Guy largely takes place inside Free City, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for short) that’s basically a way more popular Grand Theft Auto Online. Reynolds plays Guy, a non-player character (NPC) who works at a bank that gets robbed multiple times per day by actual players, who are distinguished from the NPCs by the sunglasses they wear at all times.

But when Guy falls in love with a player, Millie (Jodie Comer), and steals a pair of sunglasses, he discovers the truth about his world. At first, Guy assumes he’s still living in the real world, and that life is a gamified existence in which missions like robbing banks earn you money and reputation. A self-proclaimed “good person,” he decides to earn Millie’s respect by protecting other NPCs, a strategy that quickly goes viral in the real world, where everyone assumes he’s an actual human player refusing to play by the rules.

Meanwhile, also in the real world, we discover that Millie isn’t just playing Free City for fun. She’s trying to prove the game is based on artificial intelligence software she developed with her old business partner Keys (Joe Keery), who now works on Free City for a tyrannical boss (Taika Waititi). It’s all a bit convoluted, but it also doesn’t matter so long as you understand that Waititi is the bad guy, caring only about money, while Comer and Keery are the good guys, caring only about... video game code?

Jodie Comer with Reynolds in Free Guy.Disney

I’m oversimplifying, but that background plot speaks to a bigger issue with Free Guy. This is a movie afraid to say anything deep. At times, the story seems to argue that it’s unethical to erase an advanced A.I.-like Guy or the other Free City NPCs, but Levy doesn’t sustain that idea for long enough to make it matter.

Levy and Reynolds seem less interested in ethics and more interested in blowing things up while making PG-13-level dick jokes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. And, if anything, dick jokes are Reynolds’ sweet spot as an actor. Still, I can’t help but wonder if Free Guy would have turned out stronger in the hands of a different team.

Then again, the script — by Scoob!’s Matt Lieberman and The Avengers Zak Penn, from a story by Lieberman — is riddled with faults, from the suggestion that an entire global online game could be stored on servers in the basement of its company’s shiny headquarters to the decision to jam an unnecessary romantic twist into an otherwise satisfying ending.

Lil Rel Howery makes everything better.Disney

Free Guy is far from perfect, in other words, but there’s still plenty to love. Taika Waititi is exactly as hilarious as you’d expect, Lil Rel Howery continues to improve every movie he’s in, and Jodie Comer proves Killing Eve wasn’t a fluke — she’s a legitimate star. Reynolds is no slouch, either, carrying most of the movie on his back even as he flattens its thoughtful edges into a series of palatable jokes about video game guns and bubblegum ice cream.

For the first major original blockbuster movie in recent memory, Free Guy isn’t particularly original. It’s The Truman Show meets The Matrix, retold as a Fortnite special event. But if that sounds like fun to you, then you’ll probably have a blast.

To be honest, I had a pretty good time watching Free Guy, too. But with such a high-concept premise in the film’s arsenal, it’s easy to long for a leveled-up version that fully explored its world instead of just playing around.

Free Guy loads into theaters on August 13.