“Free Guy” – ★ ★ ½
In upside-down simulations, time loops and video games turned inside out, a growing body of movies trade on the feeling of living in a false reality — of being a glitch in the matrix. Virtual realities turn real (“Ready Player One”), television sets peel away (“The Truman Show”), arcade characters break free (“Wreck-It Ralph”).
But if anyone was ever living a lie, Free City resident and banker Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is. Every day he picks a blue shirt and khakis from a closet. He orders the same coffee. He even, like Truman, has a cheery goodbye: “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day.”
But from the start, it’s obvious something is far from right. Every day, for example, Guy’s bank is robbed at gunpoint. He and his security guard friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), calmly lie down on the floor each time and discuss their after-work plans. The reveal isn’t a shocker: “Free City” is a virtual reality game and Guy is a background character — an extra played by an A-lister.
“Free Guy” is a clever if increasingly familiar kind of meta movie that delights in seeing a video game from the inside and turning a background character into a hero. It’s more balanced and better than Steven Knight’s bold, but off-kilter, “Serenity.” But “Free Guy” is also blandly predictable and fails to unlock the levels its high-concept premise might have opened.
Directed by Shawn Levy from a script by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, “Free Guy” gets a significant boost from Jodie Comer, who plays both the VR architect Millie and her in-game avatar, Molotov Girl, and proves a force in either dimension. There are also gleeful, over-the-top performances by Taiki Waititi as the game’s diabolical overlord, and the long-dormant Channing Tatum as an in-game avatar.
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Levy, a veteran director of warmhearted comedies (the “Night at the Museum” movies, “Cheaper by the Dozen”), has a light touch and he juggles the wildlife of the gaming world — a “Grand Theft Auto”-like metropolis — as adeptly as he did that of the Natural History Museum. He’s particularly deft at toggling from inside the game to outside it. While Guy, gobsmacked by Molotov Girl, grows beyond his coding, and begins to compete with the other players in the game, Millie and her former programming partner (Joe Keery) investigate whether Soonami, the giant gaming company run by Antwan (Waititi), stole their AI design.
But “Free Guy” doesn’t take its concept anywhere particularly interesting, settling for video game puns and inner-studio references, while at the same time making self-references to its own originality.
Maybe I’m being too hard on a mostly fun, if forgettable, movie. It’s become a kind of trademark of Reynolds, also a producer here, to make big studio films that don’t take themselves too seriously.
Yet, for a proudly “original” movie, “Free Guy” isn’t really so original. It’s a charming concoction of cliches cribbed from other movies, from “Tron” to “Truman,” without its own coding.