Let me start this review with the sting of brutal truth: Just about any movie that has anything to do with video games makes me want to bash myself in the head with a 7 iron. For every entry that distinguishes itself as tolerable (Ready Player One, for instance), there are ten, twelve–no, more–that are absolute horse dung. Actually, I’ll deploy a different metaphor and say that Pixels, Double Dragon, Doom, and countless others are a cinematic Bermuda Triangle, where talent and money go to vanish in a frothy, shark-infested nightmare. With that in mind, it shouldn’t surprise you that I screened Free Guy with a pronounced sense of dread. The trailers made it look expensive and tacky, clever and belligerently idiotic. I was fully prepared to be adrift in the Sea of Terrible Movies.
Well, shut my mouth and raise my rent, y’all: Free Guy is a fairly okay experience. I didn’t hate it! Okay, neither of those sentences would make good blurbs on a movie poster, but there you have it. After all, this is a long-winded movie about a video game NPC who learns about life and love, so back-handed compliments are just gonna have to do.
For all you gamer noobs, let me offer a little help. NPC is short for Non-Player Character, so picture any barkeep, bellhop, or walking, talking collateral damage who pops up in a video game. They provide a smidge of exposition, maybe a touch of humor, or they could just be a soulless piece of collateral damage whose only function is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That perfectly describes Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a guileless bank teller who bounds merrily through everyday, blissfully unaware that he’s forever stuck in a looped hybrid of The Truman Show, Groundhog Day, and Grand Theft Auto. Guy lives in Free City, a sprawling landscape of generic skyscrapers that solely exists to be a playground of video game carnage: Burning helicopters plummet from the sky; bank robbers blow away security guards; car chases demolish entire blocks. Meanwhile, Guy bobs and weaves through the mayhem, greeting every other clueless NPC with a pristine catch phrase: “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day!”
Like any A.I. in any sci-fi story, Guy eventually gains the awareness to question the world and his place within it. This spiritual crisis only amplifies when he meets cute with Millie (Jodie Comer), a real-life programmer who has infiltrated Free City to prove its wildly successful build was plagiarized from her. She strolls into the game like a Billy Badass, instantly transforming Guy into smitten software.
Turns out, Millie’s hunch was right: Her revolutionary program was pilfered by Antwan (Taika Waititi), a wild-eyed goofball who devotes most of his over-caffeinated energy to being an insufferable asshole. To further legitimize his theft, Antwan hires Keys (Joe Keery), Millie’s ex-business partner, to help improve the Free City software. As Guy develops very real feelings for Millie, he resolves to help her find evidence of Antwan’s crime and convince Keys to join her crusade.
From this point, we get a brawny, CGI-laden riff of Ready Player One, wherein director Shawn Levy sends up video game tropes and riffs on various pop culture cornerstones. Savvy film buffs will also spot influences like The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even Metropolis baked into this digital casserole. It’s almost more irony than my tiny brain can handle that the plot of this film centers on the ninja loot of intellectual property, while the filmmakers gleefully raid from so many sources like the Hamburglar at a Hasty Bake convention.
What’s even stranger is that this hodgepodge actually kinda works. A lot of that is due to Van Wilder, who does a great job playing a digital Everyman who becomes a populist hero for the Fortnite demographic. He’s funny and relatable, while also burning away some of his trademark Deadpool sarcasm. Comer is also solid, essentially playing two roles. She and Reynolds forge decent chemistry, even when the writing isn’t quite sharp. Keery is a capable actor, but he can’t match Reynolds’ charisma, which is too bad because his character has an actual pulse and is supposed to be the romantic lead. His software whistleblower angle is never that compelling, but that’s also not his fault.
In an even stranger development, Free Guy succeeds even though its reach exceeds its grasp: The film posits big ethical and spiritual conundrums about the advance of A.I, but it’s easy to swat these big philosophical moments away. You know why? Because Free Guy mostly aims to be junk food, and it generally achieves that goal. After all, the audience can’t ponder what it means to be a sentient being if their brains are already turned off. I was able to flip that switch and enjoy this movie in an-almost zen state of disengagement. If you can do the same, I’m sure you’ll find Free Guy to be wonderfully adequate entertainment.
115 min. PG-13.