‘Free Guy’ Finds Enjoyable Escapism in a Video Game Adventure

There’s been chatter online about the death of the movie star in an age of franchises. “Free Guy” however proves that the right name can add a lot to a certain type of movie. This is a combination of CGI romp and light satire. It embraces gamer culture while taking heartfelt jabs. Because Ryan Reynolds is the lead, there is an added manic energy to it all. Among the gaming community there has always been a running joke that video game movies always fail, mostly because they can’t figure out how to turn an interactive activity into cinema. The trick in “Free Guy” is that it isn’t trying to be a video game. Instead it’s about the idea of video games as separate worlds from reality. Reynolds carries it through even when it does go into action autopilot.

The story begins deceptively. Guy (Reynolds) wakes up every morning in his pristine apartment, says hi to his goldfish, orders the same coffee at the local diner and goes to work at a local bank, where his best friend is security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). They also endure multiple bank robberies. The place is Free City, which Guy will soon discover is not all that it seems. After grabbing the glasses off of another denizen of the city, Guy’s eyes are opened to a reality of floating tokens, incredible abilities and striking color. Guy doesn’t know it, but he is a character inside a major video game, “Free City,” which is played by millions around the real world. Now he can see what they see. When Guy goes out on his own and intervenes in the actions of actual players, it sets off alarm bells at the game’s company. Coders Keys (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) log in and try to track him down. Guy meanwhile is instantly smitten by the appearance of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a gun-toting, bike-riding vigilante. In real life she’s Millie, Keys’s former coding partner, who wants to prove their code was stolen by Free City’s owner, the egomaniacal Antoine (Taika Waititi). 

You don’t have to be an actual gamer to enjoy the stronger material in “Free Guy.” Director Shawn Levy brings some of the same technological fun you find in movies like “Tron,” where the visual effects are intricate enough to hold afloat a simple story. The screenplay by Mat Lieberman and Zak Penn might even be faulted for narrative laziness in the first act, which feels suspiciously close to the plot of “The Lego Movie.” The premise is nearly identical with Guy being the overly enthusiastic, nice character who orders coffee, loves work, loves everyone because he’s clueless to the artificiality of his existence. Then again, you could always blame “The Lego Movie” for probably borrowing from “The Truman Show.” Ryan Reynolds brings his particular brand of zany charm to the performance and even adds a bit of edginess. “Free Guy” was approved at Fox before the big Disney acquisition, so some humor Mickey wouldn’t approve of slips by. Armed with his new glasses, Guy convinces the barista at the coffee shop to finally make something other than normal coffee, and when he tastes it his response is, “it’s like I lost my virginity but in my mouth.” Anyone planning on watching this movie with the family shouldn’t worry too much. Reynolds never goes for the raunch of his “Deadpool.” 

From the middle onward, “Free Guy” glides along as an enjoyable adventure that combines action with gamer satire. What scares Antoine and his coders is how Guy functions without controls and begins choosing only positive missions. Instead of blowing up buildings he wants to put fires out, or help a character instead of running them over. This turns him into an instant phenomenon. Good intentions rarely make for a good thriller, so it then takes on more of a “The Matrix” meets “Tron: Legacy” tone when Molotov Girl recruits Guy into her mission to find proof within the coding of Antoine’s theft. There’s a lot of dodging bullets, riding vehicles through incandescent streets and flashy weapons. Free City is contrasted well with reality in the way its video game surroundings are so much slicker and cleaner. Streets and buildings seem too polished, machine guns too exotic. In the real world Millie soon has an inner conflict raging because she starts to like Guy, even though he is obviously not real. Levy still throws in some biting humor in scenes poking fun at the nature of mass gaming. Guy meets a “cool” Free City assassin played by Channing Tatum, decked in leather and muscles, but we soon cut to the actual player controlling him: A nerd chewing on twizzlers while his mom vacuums. Players in the audience will also want to keep an eye out for cameos from actual gamers like Ninja, Pokimane, and DanTDM. 

Because the video game world of “Free Guy” is more alluring, the sections in the real world are slightly dull. It all boils down to Keys and Millie scheming behind Antoine’s back to crack where in the texture of the game their original design might be hiding. Taika Waititi seems to be in everything these days and gives a funny, demented performance as a tech tyrant who can fire insults with rapid precision. “Free Guy” reaches its best crescendo when the adventure starts reaching the do or die moment. This is also when one of its best satirical moments takes place in the form of “Dude,” a big, muscled creation by Antoine who is the ultimate video game version of a douchebag. His speech capacity makes King Shark from “The Suicide Squad” sound like a scholar. Lil Rel Howery is also likeable as Buddy, the extra nice friend you need for slapstick comic relief. By the end you find yourself rooting for everyone as digital walls break down, Antoine desperately tries to destroy his own servers and the question hovers if a real girl can ever truly love a video game persona. The buried, smarter idea is how it all comments on the very nature of video games. Like movies we use them to escape, sometimes getting so caught up that for a brief spell, they feel real.

Free Guy” releases Aug. 13 in theaters nationwide.