Free Guy

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Given that the vast majority of studio releases these days are based on previously-existing properties, it's refreshing to get an old-fashioned original high-concept movie like Free Guy. About halfway through, I got a feeling that was familiar to me growing up in the '80s which I feel all too rarely now – a rush of excitement over having my imagination engaged in a fresh way. This is not to say that Free Guy is any great work of art. It is, however, a clever and enjoyable picture that delivers on the promise of its high-tech premise.

Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, an NPC (non-playable character) in a violent open-world video game called “Free City.” Of course, he doesn't know that about himself. He thinks that he's just a mild-mannered bank teller who likes coffee, bubble gum-flavored ice cream, Mariah Carey songs, and aptly-named best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). Guy's life changes when he gets a glimpse of Molotov Girl, a tough, stylish woman to whom he's immediately attracted. In real life, she's game designer Milly (Jodie Comer). Her work with colleague Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) has been stolen by the designer of “Free City,” the obnoxious Antwan (Taika Waititi). Milly is playing the game, seeking to find her code within it.

Molotov Girl wears sunglasses, designating her as one of the city's main players. In order to talk to her, Guy swipes some shades from one of the robbers who come into his bank on a daily basis. Suddenly, he can see all the stuff he's not supposed to – goal objectives, health packs, hidden areas, etc. He starts “leveling up” his abilities at Molotov Girl's direction, learning how to fight and acquire money and weapons. An NPC breaking free of his role attracts the attention of gamers everywhere, as well as Antwan, who's none too happy about it, especially when Milly/Molotov Girl enlists Guy to help in her quest.

Free Guy is very knowledgeable about video games, and that's a key component to its success. A lot of the best jokes are about the milieu of “Grand Theft Auto”-style games. Guy and other characters lament the excessive amount of violence in their city, specifically the way cars frequently run them over and how there are so many armed lunatics running around. The movie additionally finds great humor in Guy's existential crisis. Once he realizes he's been programmed to operate on a loop because he's a mere background player, his once-content life suddenly feels drab. Becoming more active brings a sense of euphoria that he finds addictive. Creation of avatars is yet another source of humor, one that pays off in the big finale when Antwan unleashes his own into Free City.

Two celebrity cameos get the biggest laughs, but I wouldn't dream of telling you who pops up.

For all the comedy and all the wild action sequences – including a car chase through a crumbling digital city – Free Guy somehow finds space to include a little heartfelt content. Guy's quest to break out of his loop is touching beneath the gags. He starts to find liberation through the story's events. His romance with Molotov Girl is sweet, too, particularly in how it bleeds over into Milly's real life. The movie could have just been a silly romp, yet it digs deeper, grounding its video game satire with a core of human emotion.

There might be a bit too much going on simultaneously at several points, and Antwan is a frustratingly one-note villain. Beyond those minor quibbles, Free Guy is terrific entertainment. With Ryan Reynolds' sincere and witty performance at its center, the film is a real treat, whether you love video games a lot or not at all.

out of four

Free Guy is rated PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.