“Free Guy” begins with a high-concept premise that’s so much fun and full of potential you’ll wish it hadn’t been wasted on a Disney movie: A generic NPC in a computer game inspired by “Grand Theft Auto Online” realizes that his entire world is a simulation after he meets the only player capable of saving its servers from being shut down. Of course, the project’s relative originality belies the fact that it was actually developed by 20th Century Fox before Mickey Mouse’s Imperial Star Destroyer swallowed the studio alive, but this winsome digital fairy tale about corporate greed and the mystical power of intellectual property is much easier to enjoy if you don’t think about who made it.
That explains the inspired decision to hire “Night at the Museum” director Shawn Levy, whose stylistically anonymous films often seem like they weren’t made by anyone at all. What it doesn’t explain is why “Free Guy” goes so far out of its way to highlight its own hypocrisy that even the people who cheer for monopolistic conglomerates as if they were sports teams might feel a bit queasy during the fourth-wall-breaking third act. And yet, that’s also why Levy’s undeniable crowd-pleaser is the perfect bit of fluff to release towards the end of a summer in which any trip to the movies comes with a certain risk of getting sick. “Free Guy” is an irresistibly good time until the moment you’re confronted with the potential consequences of enjoying it.
Few people would understand that dilemma better than Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a happy-go-lucky bank teller who’s so at peace with his pre-programmed loop that he doesn’t even flinch when armed robbers hold a shotgun to his head at work. And why should he? The same thing happens at least a dozen times every single day. It’s all part of the charm of living in Free City, an overlit backlot where sky-diving mercenaries, high-speed chases, and “Heat”-worthy shootouts are as common as pigeons in Manhattan (scan the background of the film’s detail-rich exterior shots and you might see a fighter jet flying by or a poor schmuck glitching against a brick wall).
No amount of collateral damage could stop Guy from waking up, slapping on his signature blue shirt, and walking down the world’s deadliest street with a fresh coffee in his hand and a dumb smile on his face — he isn’t basic, he’s just coded that way. Some people simply weren’t born with a pair of the hero sunglasses that identify the human players in “Free City,” and there’s nothing Guy can or wants to do about it.
But then, faster than you can say “oh, this is basically ‘The Truman Show’ for the Twitch era, and it clarifies that Ryan Reynolds has always been the Jim Carrey of his generation,” Guy is awakened to the artificiality of his existence. First he sees a femme fatale hero girl on the street who triggers a Mariah Carey song in his brain like he’s one of the final five Cylons; her gamer tag is Molotovgirl, her avatar is a dead ringer for “Killing Eve” star Jodie Comer (rocking a magenta-accented wig and dressed like she wandered in from “Uncharted”), and she has an intimate connection to the master code of “Free City.” Guy comes across his own pair of hero glasses soon after that, and suddenly he can see the game as the players do, full of helpful power-ups and invisible boundaries. It’s as if Guy’s been alerted to the existence of the Matrix, except he isn’t the One so much as the Zero.
Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn’s script has some mild fun leveling up its hero in a hurry, though it’s hamstrung by the pained broadness of a film that strains to achieve gamer cred without alienating the rest of its audience. Cameos from famous Twitch stars like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Imane “Pokimane” Anys are sewed into the fabric of a story that also relies on ancient stereotypes for hacky laughs (e.g. gamers as virgins who still live with their parents), references “Meet Joe Black” more explicitly than it does Microsoft or Metroid, and feels generally uncomfortable with the fact that video games have gone mainstream — a fact that would seem to be affirmed by this movie’s very existence.
To that end, there’s something intrinsically off about the real-world portion of “Free Guy,” in which the woman behind Molotovgirl (Comer again, now as a mousy American blonde named Millie) and her lovestruck partner-in-code Walter (Joe Keery) are suing the greedy mogul who bought their revolutionary indie game and hid the evidence somewhere inside “Free City.” The platonic couple’s legal efforts take on new urgency when Millie discovers that Guy has become history’s first sentient NPC just days before Soonami CEO Antwan plans on replacing “Free City” and everyone in it with “Free City 2: Carnage” (because that’s definitely how online game launches work).
It should be fun watching Taika Waititi go full megalomaniac as a character who’s basically Mark Zuckerberg in anime drag, but his performance is nerfed to hell by the movie’s “Big Bang Theory”-worthy take on nerdom; its physically painful to hear the man behind “What We Do in the Shadows” bust out a “whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?” with a straight face. No one is asking “Free Guy” to offer a Frederick Wiseman-like portrait of programming crunch or to stretch the clear relationship between Soonnami and Blizzard to its most toxic conclusion, but there’s a big difference between suspending disbelief and depicting the video game industry as if the public hasn’t learned anything more about it since “The Wizard.”
And yet, any film that feels this focus-grouped to death should be legally required to work, and “Free Guy” does. Despite a lowest-common-denominator approach that extends to virtually every conceivable level of this video game movie, “Free Guy” offers ample (if begrudging) rewards to anyone who doesn’t just get up and walk out after the odious “Wrecking Ball” needle-drop in the first act.
Its charm starts with Reynolds, whose square jaw so naturally evokes the blocky look of an NPC that it can be hard to tell the difference whenever Levy shows us glimpses of the real “Free City” graphics. A tequila magnate best known for his indirect contribution to a song on the Taylor Swift masterpiece “Folklore,” Reynolds can also be a very endearing movie star in the right part, and his performance as Guy is locked into an ultra-sincere easy mode that feels like the polar opposite of his “Deadpool” snark even though it clearly stems from the same place. The binary nature of Reynold’s guileless nobody / good-natured hero routine makes perfect sense in this context — a nifty trick that also allows “Free Guy” to get away with its jankier CGI effects — and there’s a dash of Buddy the Elf to the way his stubbornly optimistic character teaches the players around him to exert the same control over the real world as they do over Free City.
“Life doesn’t have to be something that just happens to us,” one of them says, and most of the film’s supporting cast is such a joy that you might even feel compelled to agree. Lil Rel Howery is especially delightful as Guy’s chipper best friend who isn’t ready to live that New Game+ life, but even the nameless NPCs get a chance to shine and contribute to Free City’s unexpected sense of community (special shoutout to Michael Balzano III as the hostage who always walks around with his hands in the air).
It’s Comer, however, who emerges as the movie’s Trojan horse and unambiguous MVP. So charismatic in each of her roles that it feels like she’s holding the whole film together with both hands, the movie star in the making plays her characters with a prismatic determination that defies #girlpower tropes in favor of something more complicated and inspiring. Millie just wants to create a future that’s less scary for the people who live in it, and her faith in the hope that’s hiding just beyond what the draw-in distance of “Free City” allows its NPCs to see proves contagious. The smiley computer people want to reconcile the ludonarrative dissonance of the violent paradise they call home, while the flesh-and-blood humans are striving to free themselves from the iron grip of IP, sequels, and other soul-crushing symptoms of capitalism.
That “Free Guy” has the clarity to recognize how these crises are intertwined is fascinating, and it’s no accident that the film peaks with a PSA-like scene in which Comer realizes that guns are the common evil that binds these two realms together. And yet the movie’s admittedly effective franchise-blurring climax falls back on the same oppressive synergy that “Free Guy” is ostensibly fighting against. Every unmotivated reference to a random Disney property will inspire Pavlovian cheers of recognition from multiplex audiences, as Levy’s heedless comic bravura leaves the crowd rooting for the betrayal that Guy and his friends are trying so hard to avenge.
“Free Guy” is nothing if not a movie that wins you over in spite of your better judgment and best defenses, but its “be the change you wish to see in the world” energy feels like a micro-transactional smokescreen for a corporate monoculture that only values creativity so far as it can be used to fool us into paying for things we already own.
Twentieth Century Studios will release “Free Guy” in theaters on Friday, August 13.