It’s not out of the ordinary so see comedians develop and then stick to their own routine. In many ways they are creatures of habit and if they’re able to tap into something that works it makes sense they would stay with it. I think it’s safe to say that Ryan Reynolds has found his shtick. The 44-year-old Canadian-born actor has dipped his toes into several other genres. But he seems to have found his home playing dim but endearing goofballs.
Reynolds takes his shtick and cranks it up to 10 in his impossible-to-categorize new film “Free Guy”. On the surface the Shawn Levy directed action-comedy looks like a kid-friendly romp and even plays like it at times. But a fairly steady stream of innuendo, profanity, half-baked virginity jokes, and an assortment of other crudities testify otherwise.
Instead, the firmly PG-13 rated “Free Guy” is a gaming inspired frolic that borrows from countless other movies including “The Lego Movie”, “The Matrix”, “Ready Player One”, “The Truman Show”. There are even dashes of “Back to the Future II”, “Groundhog Day” and “Star Wars”. It also yanks from numerous video games such as “Grand Theft Auto”, “Fortnite”, “Portal”, “SimCity” and “Tomb Raider”. All of those nods (and trust me, there are many more) make watching the movie feel of a pop-culture scavenger hunt which should thrill the Easter Egg hunters out there. It also helps mask some of the film’s nagging issues.
Reynolds plays the movie’s protagonist Guy, an NPC within a vast open-world video game. Now for those not well-versed in the gaming lexicon, “NPC” stands for non-player character. They’re essentially background sims who fill out a game’s world and are often fodder for the trigger-happy players. As the name suggests, they aren’t controlled by players but are programmed to exist a certain way.
Guy lives in Free City, an uber-violent “Grand Theft Auto” styled video game where real-life players roam around wrecking havoc while the oblivious NPCs carry out their programmed routines. The overly jovial Guy is no different. His routine goes something like this: wake up happy and full of energy, put on the same powder blue shirt and khakis, stroll down to the coffee shop for his morning java (cream and two sugars) and then off to the bank where he works as a teller. At the end of the day or the end of life (whichever comes first), everything resets and Guy does it all over again.
In the real world, “Free City” is an enormously popular online video game developed and maintained by Soonami Games. The studio CEO Antwan (a ridiculously over-the-top Taika Waititi) sees dollar signs in a sequel that would ostensibly end Guy and the virtual world he calls home. Meanwhile a programmer named Millie (an eye-opening Jodie Comer) spends her time inside the virtual world of “Free City” in search of evidence that would prove that Antwan stole the code she created with Keys (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things”) who now works for Antwan. Their game was going to be a pacifistic utopia where NPCs and players live in harmony – a far cry from what Antwan created.
The two worlds collide when the wide-eyed and ever-content Guy crosses paths with Molotov Girl, Millie’s in-game avatar. Suddenly the smitten NPC steps out of his programming, joining Millie in her effort to expose Antwan. Guy’s exploits grab the gaming community’s attention and his sudden real-world fanbase watches for what he’s going to do next. And everyone (including an irate Antwan) begin wondering who the player is behind this Blue Shirt Guy, completely unaware that he’s actually an NPC turned groundbreaking artificial intelligence.
Levy along with co-writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn infuse “Free Guy” with a playful chaos and they zip through their story at a breakneck pace with practically no down time. But if you aren’t able to stay on the film’s manic and quirky wavelength, there’s a good chance of it wearing you down. And no matter how much it stuffs into its nearly two hour frame, if you aren’t 100% onboard you may start checking your watch at the 90-minute mark like I did.
Gamers will have a lot of fun finding all of the references aimed specifically at them. Terms like backwards compatibility, leveling up, teabagging, multiplayer lobbies, and so on. They even paid some well-known video game streamers to appear as themselves. Their scenes happen to be some of the falsest moments in the film, but they’re aimed at gamers nonetheless.
“Free Guy” is jam-packed with gags – some that land, many that don’t. Interestingly it’s the more subtle jokes that work best. For example I love how ‘Guy’ has such a perfectly generic name. And his best friend (a wonderfully warm Lil Rel Howery) is fittingly named ‘Buddy’. But there are just as many dated out-of-touch yawners that land with a thud. And I have to get back to Waititi as the film’s incredibly hammy villain. His act is alright for a few scenes, but it’s so outrageous that it’s impossible to take him seriously even when the story needs us to.
Despite its frustrations, “Free Guy” also has several strengths. Burrowed deep down in all of the silliness is a really good message about individuality and wanting more out of life. Even better, the movie features what should be a breakout performance from Jodie Comer. And there’s one particularly incredible cameo that I won’t dare spoil (you’ll know it when you see it). Unfortunately the good doesn’t fully outweigh the bad. It just evens things out a bit. And while it has an undeniably bright and cheery exterior, underneath is little more than a fairly standard and borderline exhausting blockbuster. “Free Guy” is now showing in theaters.