It probably says something about the superheroicized state of big-budget entertainment that some movies have turned to videogames to find avatars of genuine human emotion. Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the non-human at the center of Free Guy, is essentially a cross between the two leading pixels-with-feelings from parent company Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph: Like Ralph, Guy is a videogame character who starts to feel stirrings of dissatisfaction in his programmed role, and like young racer Vanellope, he’s also a glitch in the system that threatens to bring the whole game down with him. As a citizen of Free City, sort of a massive-multiplayer Grand Theft Auto, Guy’s job is to walk through the action, stumble across the paths of the actual players, and regularly get killed and reset. When he catches sight of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), he doesn’t realize that she has a human in another world controlling her impeccably styled action moves—and certainly doesn’t understand that her human controller is an idealistic game designer named Millie (also Comer). He only knows that he no longer wants to get knocked through the digital shrapnel at will. He wants to go where she goes, which means experimenting with a level of freedom heretofore unavailable to his routine background life.
You can see why a figure fighting against fantastically violent repetition might appeal to Reynolds, who has respawned in no fewer than three different superhero franchises over the years before finally making Deadpool into an unlikely household name. He keeps coming back with his smarm levels strategically readjusted, the flexibility of plastic crossed with the indestructibility of digital bits. He’s a good actor—check out the dissolute weariness of Mississippi Grind or Adventureland for proof—but seems well past trying to prove it. These days, even his character parts are in blockbuster cameos. Free Guy has moments of faux-humble self-aggrandizement befitting an insulated movie star, but it also, at times, feels like an actor’s searching plea: Someone please teach me how to reshape myself into a good person amidst this unfeeling landscape of aggressive IP.
Indeed, Free Guy has been making promotional rounds touting itself as a beacon of fresh ideas in a sequel-clogged, originality-deficient summer, and the movie itself has its bad guy championing the value of “IP and sequels” with what’s supposed to be a wise and knowing wink to the audience. (You’re too sophisticated to fall for his bullshit, the movie practically coos, an hour and change before cuing up a couple of applause moments keyed specifically to recognizing stuff from other stuff.) The core of the movie does have an appealing sweetness, as Guy the digital naïf tries with maximum enthusiasm and minimum health points to woo Molotov Girl/Millie. (It’s hard to resist one of Comer’s trailer lines: “Oh, he found the button,” she assures a real-world pal befuddled by the lack of a kissing button in a game disinclined to foster romantic connection.) Reynolds has had a lucrative side career as a rom-com guy—even the Deadpool series indulges it—and his scenes opposite the charming Comer generate virtual sparks, such as they are. Their big, CG-swamped action scenes practically have cartoon hearts floating through them.
Unfortunately, the movie has plenty more complications: Reams of screenwriters’ pages working out a simple awakening story into something plottier and more elaborate. Millie and her coding partner Keys (Joe Keery) had their more inventive open-world game stolen by the nefarious Antwan (Taika Waititi), who has turned it into the crass, promotionally minded Free City and now holds the key to destroying the artificial intelligence springing up on his stolen playground. The real-world material, of which there is overmuch, is disastrous, pitched with nonstop exposition and sputtering, buzzword-laden quips. The humans talk more like automatons than the in-game characters. If only that was the movie’s idea of satire. Sadly, it’s just its jumped-up version of crowd-pleasing comedy as interpreted and clumsily updated by Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy, who can marshal endless special effects resources but seemingly has no idea how to exert control over Taika Waititi. Waititi rolls into the movie halfway through, held back like a secret weapon, and proceeds to give a master class in how not to steal a scene that everyone seems hell-bent on handing over with no trouble. It’s like a deranged scientific experiment in removing all actual shtick from a performance that’s nothing but; all that remains is a fidgeting, mugging husk of shtick, unmoored from normal ideas of timing, jokes or scene partners.
If nothing else in Free Guy can match the indifferent non-calculation of Waititi’s performance, he nonetheless embodies the movie’s approach, which is to create continual noisy distractions from its most interesting ideas. Having Reynolds play a revolutionary figure in the field of artificial intelligence with the innocence of an awkward middle-schooler who doesn’t yet understand not to repeat the jokes he overhears from mean-spirited gamers is funny—and the movie can’t wait to skip over the funny stuff in order to use Guy as a vehicle for lessons in real-world self-actualization. Reynolds, as ever, seems both happy to be there and faintly self-mocking about his never-ending quest for validation. A better movie could tease out that tension, or allow its star to unravel a little, rather than just get knocked around. Free Guy is too busy mashing buttons.
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Matt Lieberman, Zak Penn
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.