Gamers, rejoice! “Free Guy,” now in theaters, is your movie of the year. Ryan Reynolds, his charm jacked all the way up to 11, plays Guy, a relentlessly upbeat bank teller with a pet goldfish and a blue-shirt-and-khakis fashion sense that guarantees a lifetime of virginity.
That is until Guy realizes he’s not real at all, just an NPC, a Non-Player Character trapped in a videogame. Guy doesn’t want out, he just wants a bigger part.
Non-gamers won’t be as jazzed by the in-jokes, Easter eggs and star-gamer cameos. But Reynolds, whose handsome, unlined face makes him ideal to play a blank slate, turns “Free Guy” into a go-down-easy summer funfest even for a n00b (that’s a burn for a newbie).
It’s hard not to laugh at the visual comedy that sparks “Free City,” an open-world, first-person shooter game (I’ll pause while you Google that), where Guy and his security-guard NPC buddy, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), remain oblivious in a “Groundhog Day” time loop where their bank is repeatedly robbed.
The light dawns when Guy realizes that the “sunglasses people” wreaking havoc are avatars for players in the real world who have all the fun, leaving Guy and Buddy to grind out the same dull routine. Spoiler alert: Guy rebels by wearing sunglasses that put him in the game for real.
Don’t get your hopes up. ”Free Guy” never comes close to the sharp satire and desperation that Jim Carrey brought to 1998’s “The Truman Show.” Luckily, Reynolds is too good to let Guy drown in the shallows with “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” the other digiverse epic this summer.
Director Shawn Levy, of the hit “Night at the Museum” series, intuitively understands that the interactive energy of a videogame can never be matched by a movie that you watch impassively. So he looks elsewhere for the magic that might pull in an audience.
He finds it in the characters. Reynolds makes something funny and touchingly human about a character made of pixels who grows to resent following someone else’s script. Why can’t Guy break his code, stop a bank robbery and become a hero? He can and does, of course.
He also falls in love. Not just with Molotov Girl, the game’s hottie avatar, but with Millie, the game’s human designer. “Killing Eve” Emmy winner Jodie Comer plays both roles with humor and heart. “The only non-toxic guy I meet is a robot,” she says with exasperation.
The Reynolds/Comer chemistry is a joy to behold. What a shame that plot mechanics gum up the works. Someone is stealing Millie’s code. And with the help of her ex-partner, Keys (Joe Keeny of “Stranger Things”), she traces the theft to Antwan, a gamer mogul hammed to the hilt by Taika Watiti, who played Hitler with more restraint in “Jojo Rabbit.”
Reynolds even recycles his patented “Deadpool“ snark, no matter how wrong it is for his character. Would this generic Everyman really counter a sunny weather forecast by saying, “With a smattering of drive-bys?” He would here.
And the 11th-hour advocacy for non-violence seems hypocritical in a movie that revels in gun-happy gamer bang-bang. Reynolds keeps the comic pixels firing, but in the end, “Free Guy” plays like a pale simulation of the better, brighter, riskier movie it might have been.