“Free Guy” is Ryan Reynolds’s second go-round this summer, following “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.” Remember that one? Of course not. This one is notably better: livelier, wittier, more engaging.
“Free Guy” is itself a second go-round — several times over. It draws heavily on one great movie, “Groundhog Day” (1993); one very good movie, “The Truman Show” (1998); and one pretty good movie, “Ready Player One”(2018). Zak Penn, who adapted “Ready Player, co-wrote the new movie, with Matt Lieberman. Shawn Levy (the “Night at the Museum” movies) directed.
Sometimes “Free Guy” expands on its predecessors, just as often it doesn’t. In such an uninspired movie summer, derivativeness may not be as much of a problem, and the movie does have its moments. Plus, there’s the matter of home-field advantage. Much of the movie was shot
downtown, in and around Liberty Square, and in the Seaport. Yes, that’s the Moakley Courthouse in the background of several scenes.
“Free Guy” isn’t set in Boston, though. It’s set in Free City. Free City is the location of a massive multiplayer online game of the same name. Reynolds plays Guy, one of the characters. A bank teller, Guy is cheerfully clueless. Every day he wears the same blue shirt. Every day he makes the same coffee order. Every day he says to his customers, “Don’t have a good day. Have a great day.” Every day he … well, yes, you see the “Groundhog Day” angle, though the catch is that Guy is oblivious to the repetition.
Obliviousness is a useful quality in Free City. “I live in paradise,” Guy declares. Now that’s how clueless he is. Free City is a maelstrom of violence — death and destruction up the cyber wazoo — that’s happily perpetrated by the players of the game. The players’ avatars wear sunglasses, which distinguish them from nonplayable characters, like Guy. Here’s where “The Truman Show” comes in, with Guy unaware that he’s leading his life (if you can call this living) for the benefit of millions of people watching him — and, of course, blowing up stuff all around him.
All this is designed to go on forever, or at least until Soonami, the company that sells “Free City,” releases “Free City 2.” But a pair of bugs — or are they features? — confuse the situation. “Maybe I’ll get some sunglasses of my own,” Guy says to his bank guard friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery). Wait, sunglasses? Isn’t that like “Men in …,” oh, never mind. Guy, in his Everyman way, is about to eat of the fruit of the the digital Tree of Knowledge and become “the first confirmed artificially intelligent character,” as an astonished Soonami coder puts it.
The second bug is what gets Guy to try on the shades. He’s fallen in love with one of the avatars and wants to talk to her. She’s Molotov Girl — but in the actual world (now we’re in “Ready Player One” territory) she’s Millie, one of the designers of the source of the game. She collaborated with Keys (I know, I know, “E.T.”). Millie and Keys suspect that Antoine (Taika Waititi), the head of Soonami — that name really is pretty clever — ripped off their original code. “Words will let you down,” Keys says. “But zeros and ones, never.” Maybe, maybe not.
So that’s your basic, admittedly convoluted set up. Reynolds is his usual two steps away from absolute insincerity. Where in other movies that can be maddening, here it lends a nice lift to his line readings. In some ways, “Free Guy” is more about Millie (Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”) and Keys (Joe Keery, “Stranger Things”) than it is about Guy. In the sort of movie where you’d think genuine sweetness and charm would be an afterthought, Comer and Keery provide both.
Parts of “Free Guy,” in its derivative way, are quite inventive. There’s a very funny “Star Wars” joke. Reynolds gets to briefly play a very non-Guy guy, to highly comic effect. And who knew a reference to white male privilege could get a (deserved) laugh? The inventiveness does tend to be more of the skit variety than the feature film kind, but so be it.
There’s way too much CGI, of course; but, in fairness to the filmmakers, that’s sort of the point. Really, it’s not Reynolds or Comer or Keery who’s the star. It’s all the cartoonish destruction. Every person onscreen, human and nonplayable character alike, is part of the supporting cast, not that any of them understand this. Seen that way, the biggest source of DNA for “Free Guy” isn’t any of those movies already mentioned. It’s a Tom Stoppard play, or its 21st-century equivalent. Call it “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Digital.”
Directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Joe Keery, Lil Rel Howery, Taika Waititi. At Boston theaters, suburbs, 115 minutes. PG-13 (strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.