Shawn Levy's latest is a charming and enjoyable ride
Shawn Levy is turning into the type of powerhouse Hollywood producers that we simply don’t see anymore. The Canadian has been working diligently behind the scenes, occasionally directing. His best work has included Stranger Things (2016-), producing Best Picture Oscar nominee Arrival (2016), and the Night at the Museum trilogy, which he directed. He’s back in the directing chair with Free Guy (2021), and he’s starting to get comfortable with such a perspective.
Free Guy takes place in the video game world of Free City, where players can log-in to rob banks, murder civilians, and wreak havoc. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a non-playable background character, who has the same old routine of: waking up, working as a bank teller, and getting held up by real world players. However, Guy starts to become curious and self-aware of his situation, and he slowly starts to break out of his loop, seeking his own autonomy. This, thanks to the disruptive presence of player Millie (Jodie Comer), an independent programmer trying to sue Free City’s developer for having stolen her idea.
Levy has been sharpening his directing skills throughout his career, timidly stepping into the big chair occasionally. His biggest learning experience probably came from the TV side where he’s been exclusively directing for the past five years. Free Guy is his first real foray into feature films as a director since the burnt-out reception of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014). However, with Free Guy, Levy has been granted an incredibly original concept from writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn.
Free Guy turned out to be a bigger social critique than I was expecting from a big budget CGI mash-up. There is an effective commentary on the mindless routine that people subject themselves to, without thinking of the oppression and abuse that they are suffering. The message of independent thought and autonomy is certainly something necessary today, with many taking heed from ridiculous social media posts to determine their lifestyle and morals. Free Guy also takes up issue with quickly popularizing video game industry. There are clear references to the likes of “Fortnite” and “Grand Theft Auto” in the film, and how their popularity and addiction stems from waging violence on innocent bystanders. Even though such innocent bystanders aren’t real, is it still wrong to be so cruel to them? The Westworld-ian question is explored much more than you would think. However, Free Guy cheekily also seems to exploit these aspects, by using the violence and action as a core part of its entertainment. And certainly, the artificial-world-break-out gimmick has also been done before to great effect in the likes of The Truman Show (1998) or The Lego Movie (2014); but Free Guy thankfully doesn’t coast off the successes of similar films, and instead crafts a charm all its own.
The biggest boon Free Guy has going for it, is the casting of Reynolds. Reynolds is one of the most likeable actors working; his natural charisma is enough to carry even a terrible film. With the creative surroundings of Free Guy and an inventive plot, Reynolds can shine even more, reveling in the comedy and action. I was also very pleased to finally see Comer make the jump to the big screen, after having astounded viewers on television with her appearances in Killing Eve (2018-) and The White Princess (2017).
The main problem with Free Guy might be that its creators are having too much fun. While there is a clear-cut structure in the first half of the film, you can sense that Penn, Lieberman, and Levy get distracted exploring their own world, so that the plot can wander at points of tension. The shifts in character motivations are also a bit sloppy, with key decisions being arrived at or implemented with unconvincing speed. This might be from the fact that Free Guy doesn’t have too convincing of a villain, with Taika Waititi playing the greedy programmer, making the writers try to shift away to something distracting. The Kiwi actor is able to inhabit a sense of fun to his character, but can sometimes take him a bit too over-the-top, so that the stakes can feel lowered at crucial moments.
However, in the end Free Guy was a refreshingly fun time at the movies. The film has a way of sneaking into your good graces so that by the end you are surprised by how much you care about the characters. Free Guy is able to surpass the more long-winded aspects of its plot and overreliance on CGI thanks to its charming lead performances and creative concept. In the end, you even get your daily dose of social commentary that turned out to be much deeper and effective that one would have expected from a blockbuster Hollywood film. One can only hope the Levy continues a steady climb of bold and original filmmaking.