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Review: ‘Free Guy’ tests the limits of Ryan Reynolds’ charm. He doesn’t pass

Ryan Reynolds  and Jodie Comer in "Free Guy."
Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer in “Free Guy.”
(20th Century Studios)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The latest blockbuster to bring video games to the big screen is the bold, brash and self-aware (literally) “Free Guy,” a film that trains its sights on those oft disposable “nonplayer characters” (i.e. the characters a player can’t control) that populate the edges of the video game world. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is one such character, living and working in the world of Free City, where every day he gets the same coffee, works as a bank teller and happily hits the deck when a player barges in to rob the bank several times a day. Guy and his pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) are more than content to be background players in someone else’s narrative, as they’ve been programmed to be.

But Guy has a nagging feeling that there’s more out there, and one day, when a comely player known as Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) saunters past humming Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” a new feeling is awakened within him: love, lust, infatuation, you name it. That shouldn’t be in Guy’s code, and when he starts stepping outside the expectations of a nonplayer character to pursue the mysterious Molotov Girl, it causes an uproar that turns him into a star known as “Blue Shirt Guy” to the “real world” outside the game.

That real world outside Free City is where the genuine action and consequences of the film lie, though it all plays out inside the game. Molotov Girl is Millie (Comer), an indie game designer who plays Free City in search of evidence that the code for her own game was stolen. Her former partner, Keys (Joe Keery), now works at the massive gaming company Soonami that runs Free City under the tyranny of flamboyant impresario Antwan (Taika Waititi). It’s Guy’s lovesick meddling with Molotov that tips Millie and Keys off as to where their code might be hidden in the game and sends them on a wild chase to uncover it.

Director Shawn Levy, production designer Ethan Tobman and VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg discuss the process behind creating three aesthetically different worlds for ‘Free Guy.’

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Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, directed by Shawn Levy, “Free Guy” is an easy, breezy riff on video game culture that’s sure to delight avid gamers (nongamers will get up to speed quickly) and calls to mind “The Truman Show,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and the Apple TV+ series “Mythic Quest.” But it hinges on one very specific proposition that can make or break the movie: Are you buying what Ryan Reynolds is selling?

Reynolds, who has the face and body of your standard hunky leading man, has the snarky delivery and inherent smarminess of a comic character actor. His highly specific persona has been used perfectly in only a few of his films, including both the “Deadpool” movies, “Van Wilder” and the excellent indie “Mississippi Grind,” in which he plays an inveterate gambling addict opposite Ben Mendelsohn. As the generically handsome doofus Guy, who romances a (12 years his junior) Comer, Reynolds is a bit too glib and smug to buy as the romantic lead. It’s actually a relief that the movie salvages the romance by relegating it to the game world.

But the whole film remains a bit too glib and smug anyway. Even with romance powering its emotional core, the conflict of “Free Guy” is about intellectual property rights, which comes across especially like “Hollywood problems.” That cynicism is underscored by some truly awkward moments of ret-conned Disney IP that feel as if they were shoved in after Disney acquired Fox and all its content.

When you’re pondering the consequences of corporate mergers and acquisitions rather than being caught up in the tale on-screen, that’s an indication there’s been a failure of storytelling along the way. Then again, it’s somewhat apt, as “Free Guy” is a film about tearing apart the world-building at the seams to see what’s underneath. “Mythic Quest” and Disney’s own “Wreck-It Ralph” reveal that what’s underneath is a lot of heart. Here, it just seems to be 1s and 0s.

‘Free Guy’

Rating: PG-13, for strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: In general release, starting Aug. 13


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