Monotony isn’t a problem for the generic citizens of Free City, an open-world video game in the vein of “Grand Theft Auto,” where robberies, shootouts, and explosion are commonplace.
Within this virtual realm of bloodless violence, director Shawn Levy builds the action-packed rom-com “Free Guy,” his most thematically ambitious project yet thanks to writers Matt Lieberman (“The Christmas Chronicles”) and Zak Penn (“Ready Player One”).
Fortunately for this team, their big-budget creation evokes a bit of “The Truman Show” more than it does the dreadful “Pixels,” another picture that bet on the mass appeal of video-game culture but with an angle of nostalgia. Levy, a Hollywood regular behind the bankable “Night at the Museum” franchise, operates in eye-popping VFX set pieces and above-average comic timing, consistently landing dialogue-driven, self-aware gags.
Unaware of his status as a NPC (Non Player Character) or that his entire reality is fabricated, Guy (Ryan Reynolds) smiles through the motions of his repetitive days working as a bank teller in Free City. There are no good days here, only great ones. Though content, he admires the “people in sunglasses,” the ones causing all the wreckage. Unbeknownst to him, these are the casual players and Twitch and YouTube streamers from the real world.
One recurrent source of comedy, at least during the first act, comes from how unfazed the inhabitants of this code-driven realm are by the repeated destruction of their surroundings, and how even asking for anything other than drip coffee constitutes a glitch in the system. Visually artificial by design, the world-building dazzles in its neon interactivity only when we look through the same lens as users.
But Guy’s innocent lack of desire for something greater ends when he runs into Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”). Those wearing shades never interact with the background characters, but she noticed him when he sang along to Mariah Carey’s groovy hit “Fantasy.” Beyond the screen, Molotov Girl is Millie, a developer whose project was stolen and repurposed as “Free City” by ruthless businessman Antwan (a cartoonish Taika Waititi). She needs proof of this to defeat him.
Guy’s newfound love interest compels him to get a pair of sunglasses and play the game himself, but instead of committing crimes, he helps his fellow NPCs. Buildings that come apart and are reshaped into digital staircases and bridges are part of the colorful sensory overload that Levy’s film induces as it finds humor in the protagonist’s naiveté at every turn. Needle-drops of famous pop songs and strokes of broad physical comedy complete an overstuffed package.
Ironically, for a movie about getting out of your comfort zone, Reynolds’ utmost sincerity as Guy recalls many of his previous performances, particularly his career-best turn in the horror comedy “The Voices.” The actor tones down the irony of his “Deadpool” persona and amps up wide-eye charm to play the embodiment of the phrase “not all heroes wear capes.” In a dual role, Comer stands out, whether knocking them dead as a skillful assassin in the high-octane sequences or reacting in bafflement to Guy’s unawareness.
But as astute as this display of heartfelt spectacle is at times, choosing a straight white man to embody the default iterations of normalcy, and then of heroism, goes against the filmmakers’ pursuit of originality. The tech-savvy pair beyond the screen who crafted the concept is also white, leaving all the supporting and villainous roles to the non-white cast. The writers didn’t stop to consider how people of color often feel like NPCs themselves in all facets of the entertainment industry and the stories it tells.
In fairness, “Free Guy” occasionally massages in commentary on the rampant toxic masculinity in the gamer community and even shows an understanding of the pervasive presence of a hypothetical “nice guy” who’s only affable so long as women don’t reject him. Conversely, it also goes for low-hanging fruit when it tosses in trite jokes about virginity or ridicules adult players who still live with their parents.
The interactions between Millie and the sentient algorithm, an A.I. situation that’s attributed to the sophistication of her programming skills, are strangely heartwarming. Yet, the flesh-and-bone manifestation of that affection is with her former collaborator Keys (Joe Keery, “Stranger Things”). The nerdy chap, obviously infatuated in with her, now works for Antwan but wants to reclaim the game they crafted together. In turn, Guy’s most durable relationship is his platonic friendship with security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), a pleasant deviation from guy-meets-girl tales where finding a romantic partner stands as the ultimate goal.
Nods to Disney’s franchises will get strong responses. Brand recognition sells. But they mostly feel like an on-screen announcement of the monoculture that has now successfully folded 20th Century (Fox) into its all-encompassing domain. High-profile cameos deliver in their unexpectedness, but those, too, feel similarly corporate in their intent to enact links between “Free Guy” and other properties.
Less inventive that it gives itself credit for, “Free Guy” qualifies as a summer blockbuster with something mildly compelling to say; not the most articulate or substantial in its exploration of its most interesting ideas, to be sure, but enjoyable nonetheless. So few of these expensive releases care to be more than crowd-pleasing escapism that the mere effort to engage with real-world concerns like gun violence comes off as creatively valuable.
“Free Guy” opens in US theaters August 13.