'Free Guy:' Ryan Reynolds Excels In This Heartfelt, Hilarious Action-Comedy [Review]

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is the last character you’d play in a video game. A teller at a bank that’s consistently robbed, he gets the same coffee every day (a medium, cream, and two sugars), wears the same clothes (a blue button-up and khakis), and every morning joyfully greets his pet goldfish. He’s an NPC (a non-player character), living at the behest of the gun-toting characters wearing sunglasses. Guy is happy in this repetitive, bottom-rung existence until he sees the swaggering Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer).    

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Like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show,” Guy doesn’t know he’s a video game character. He just knows that he exists: He loves bubble gum ice cream, going by the beach, and hanging out with his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a lax security guard at the bank. Similar to “Ready Player One,” however, Guy’s world, a popular game known as “Free City,” is under threat from a greedy developer: in this case, Antwan (Taika Waititi, a grating, try-hard villain whose put-downs are rarely funny). 

Though he’s already played the rambunctious killer Deadpool, here, you get the sense that Ryan Reynolds has never had more fun. Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy,” a flawed crowd-pleaser that feels mid-render in its deeper themes, is a hilarious action-packed joy ride with just as much heart as jokes. 

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The heart in this movie, written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, begins with the aforementioned Reynolds. Always a lock for a sincere performance, he’s more than a Carrey double, here. It takes real grit to sell a childlike character without being saccharine. And when Guy hears the strains of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” as he punches a check with a stamp that says “today” rather than the day’s date, as he walks past the swirling wreckage of crashing helicopters, grenades, armed robberies, and urban warfare, we must believe his love of this calculated world is genuine. And we do. 

The other big beat is Millie, the player behind Molotov Girl. She doesn’t play Free City for fun. Rather Millie is on a mission. See, Antwan might have stolen the build for a game she developed with her partner Keys (Joe Keery), currently working for Antwan, years ago. She sued him but she needs proof, which might be hidden somewhere in Free City. She calls for Guy’s help, whom she initially thinks is another player in the real world, to find the bounty.  Only to find love.

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It would be very easy to be cynical of this big, loud, and busy action flick: Buddy is the Black best friend, a trope the movie smartly lampoons. But he’s also frustratingly close to being a magical Negro. Likewise, Molotov Girl is clearly an edgy fantasy girl, a prize rather than a person. But the central romance, thoughtfully, isn’t what you think. Guy is also a white savior to this town of enslaved NPC’s. Yet, it’s still so easy to fall in love with these characters. Even the smallest of roles like Officer Johnny (Mike Devine) or the leering Bombshell (Camille Kostek) feel totally unique in a very self-aware narrative, one that even loops in real-life Youtube gaming hosts. 

“Free Guy” is surprisingly far more complex than expected. It grapples with sentience, a creation that Millie and Keys always hoped they’d make. Existential dread creeps up too. These concepts, however, aren’t explored with enough depth. Millie and Keys aren’t forced to grapple with their role in generating life without any regard for how that lifeform might feel. And Guy is too congenial to debate the point: If the megalomaniac, Antwan, hadn’t stolen their concept, how would they have approached these new beings?

The moral logic driving “Free Guy” doesn’t track either. Guy falls for Molotov, believing she’s his ticket away from the mundane. To win her affection, he earns points by saving people from criminals rather than gleefully being the criminal in a toxic landscape of foul-mouth trolls, political incorrectness, and pleasure seekers employing random acts of violence. But the film isn’t much interested in critiquing the onscreen, video game carnage. Rather, Guy levels up by using the same brutal attacks his opponents use. While the emphasis in this movie is on the gamer (what they bring to these virtual worlds) not the methodology of the game itself, it’s worth questioning why Guy can only problem-solve through violence. 

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And then there’s how “Free Guy” decries sequels and IP-based games. How developers coast on name value, like Antwan and his plans for Free City 2. It’s a salient point in the gaming world (and the film sphere, too). But by the conclusion, through a couple, admittedly, hilarious cameos and pop culture references, Levy succumbs to the same IP-driven storytelling he once lamented. A generous reading would say he’s well aware of this illogical break. That to critique the trend, he subversively becomes a willing participant. That indeed would be generous. 

Even so, all of these beats are hilarious. All of them are heartfelt. The genuineness inherent in this unwitting protagonist imbues the onscreen action with a likewise sincerity, even if said sincerity isn’t totally merited. “Free Guy” could have taken the easy road, becoming a mere star vehicle for Reynolds to display his talents. But this CGI playground reaches for something more, taking plenty of well-worn paths to get there, and making homages to better movies. And unlike “Space Jam,” another sensory overload brimming with IP love, it never feels tacky or put on. Rather natural, and side-splitting.

This epic, crowd-pleasing adventure, one of the funniest movies of the year, needn’t be as good as “The Truman Show” or “Wreck-it-Ralph” to be entertaining. It just needs to emotionally feel real, as real as Guy feels himself to be. In that regard, “Free Guy” is a winner. [B]

“Free Guy” arrives in theaters on August 13.