Free Guy is remarkably palatable for a picture that doesn’t have a single fresh idea in its body. But “good” isn’t the right word. Shawn Levy’s galactically derivative action-comedy mashes together elements from The LEGO Movie, The Truman Show, They Live!, The Matrix, Wreck-It Ralph, Ready Player One, and a slew of other films to create a movie that goes down relatively peacefully but has a distressing lack of focus. But, like — nor perhaps because of — its star, Ryan Reynolds, the film occasionally seems to be aware of its limitations. Its cynicism is turned into an asset at its best.
Reynolds plays Guy, a blue-shirted bank teller who, though he doesn’t realize it, is an NPC (non-playable character) in the massively popular video game Free City. When the bank he works at is continuously robbed, his primary purpose is to dive for cover. His best friend, Buddy, portrayed by Lil Rel Howery, is a security guard who does the same thing every day while lying face-down on the bank floor, chatting casually.) On the other hand, instead of doing as he’s told, Guy takes one of the thieves’ dark glasses and uncovers that they expose a whole universe of unique powers, paths, and other video-game gizmos. They allow him to traverse and transform his reality in unexpected ways. In other words, he begins to break free from his indoctrination.
Soon enough, the players in the real world begin to notice Guy and suspect that he is either another player disguised as an NPC or that a hacker is manipulating him. However, real-life programmers Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer) begin to question if Guy is the artificially intelligent character they’ve always imagined: a computer-generated figure who can grow and learn and become so genuinely self-aware that he can design his own course.
Millie, who prowls Free City as Molotov Girl, a Trinity-like avatar, strikes up a romantic relationship with Guy; Meanwhile, she’s engaged in a covert struggle with annoying tech-bro Antwan (Taika Waititi), the CEO of the business that sells Free City, who may have swiped the code for a far more imaginative but weaker platform.
There’s a concept here about how an individual might break free from various social restraints that appear to predetermine one’s fate – race, class, gender, and so on. When other players compliment Guy’s “skin” and inquire about where he obtained it, Guy is bewildered and flattered at the same time. Nonetheless, Ryan Reynolds – of all people — seems to be making a joke. — for the more significant part of a decade, Hollywood has been feverishly attempting to turn him into a movie star, yet he has come to symbolize this coming of age.
Reynolds, on the other hand, is a good fit for the role. What held him back in his early years, when he seemed to jump from one underperforming vehicle to the next, was a layer of insincerity that pervaded every line of phrase, gesture, and glance. His performances had a cold, even psychopathic feel to them. (This is primarily why he was a brilliant Van Wilder but a disaster as the Green Lantern.) It’s also why films like Mississippi Grind and the Deadpool flicks, which brilliantly capitalized on his existential disingenuousness, benefited immensely from his presence. He truly excels at playing a character made entirely of ones and zeros; his awakening is pragmatic and technological rather than emotional. Guy’s lack of depth is acceptable because he isn’t a genuine person.
Reynolds’ robotic charisma lends the movie a chuckle aspect that makes it appear more intelligent than it is. Even late in the film, when it starts freely associating with Disney or Fox characters, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s satirizing., say, Space Jam 2’s more sincere pandering. Meanwhile, a love storyline involving Millie and Keys is handled so clumsily that you could think the movie is mocking Hollywood’s standard romantic subplots for a moment. That’s when you realize you’ve been giving Free Guy way too much credit. The film’s bland quality isn’t a “comment” on anything; it’s just there.
Reynolds gets credit for making this entertaining, but watching a nonperson for more than a few hours grows tedious. In Free Guy, there are shards of an intriguing story about Guy’s awakening, which allows him to influence both people in the real world and the other NPCs in Free City to realize that life is more than just playing a part in other people’s plans. However, director Levy’s near-pathological lack of visual inventiveness ensures that any significant themes are stifled. How can one make a film about awakening to the unlimited possibilities of existence — about discovering hidden abilities and the movable confines of one’s reality — be so dull and unappealing cinematically?
Levy’s main credo appears never to take any risks in terms of aesthetics. However, Free Guy is supposed to be a film about taking chances. If there’s nothing on the other side of the fourth wall, what’s the point of breaching it?