Review: 'Free Guy' has difficulty straddling real, video game worlds

Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer star in action comedy built to press the buttons of gamers.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The background characters in video games are meant to be just that: background. They don't have backstories or character arcs. They're simply there to move the main character along on his quest, whether it's to save the princess or blow up half a metropolis.

Ryan Reynolds and Lil Rel Howery in "Free Guy."

Is this dismissive? Not really, these are zeroes and ones we're talking about, not beings with souls. What the muddled action comedy "Free Guy" wrestles with is the question of whether background characters should have full lives, and if they did, how we would feel about them. Director Shawn Levy and writers Zak Penn and Matt Lieberman work overtime to convince us we would and should care. But would we, really? 

That's the main problem with "Free Guy," which operates a bit like "Groundhog Day" in the video game world, cross-spliced with "The Truman Show."

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a non-playable character (or NPC) in "Free City," a popular "Grand Theft Auto"-style video game where gamers wreak all sorts of lawless havoc on its digital city streets. Guy, dressed in his generic blue shirt and khakis, is a teller at a bank which gets robbed umpteen times a day. Don't worry, he's not ever in any real danger because again, he's not real. 

But what if he... was? It turns out that Guy is more sentient than he's initially made out to be, as he has code leftover from a previous game, designed by Millie ("Killing Eve's" Jodie Comer) and Keys ("Stranger Things'" Joe Keery), the premise of which was based on people watching the lives of video game characters unfold as if they were real people. Maybe it would work; people still watch "Big Brother," and those people are only a few variables off from video game characters. 

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in "Free Guy."

Millie and Keys' game was squelched by Antwan (Taika Waititi in a cartoonishly over-the-top performance), the hipster man-child head of video game publisher Soonami, who ripped off its code for "Free City." Now Millie is poking around inside the game, dressed as the badass Molotov Girl and seeking evidence of theft, when she catches the eye of Guy, who has been programmed to fall in love with her.    

"Free Guy" — its title refers both to video game 1-Ups and the notion of Guy finding his freedom — bounces between the real world and the video game world without really establishing a credible set of rules in either space.

In the game, Guy begins to awaken, and outside, fans and the media begin to take notice. His popularity is covered in the mainstream — he even becomes a "Jeopardy!" question, read by Alex Trebek — and "Free Guy" becomes one of those movies where large groups of people are shown gawking at monitors, often in a public place, as a way to quantify one's popularity. Well people must be invested, they're all looking at a screen together!

Reynolds is in sweet mode, which means he's only lightly snarky, while Comer isn't able to show off the full range of her talents or dig into her character the way that she does as Villanelle on "Killing Eve." Waititi is on another planet where "Free Guy" is a satire of the video game industry, a premise not supported by the script, which aims for earnest and sweet. 

"Free Guy" is a mixed bag: it's full of sharp visuals and gags that will appeal to video game fans, and features a handful of cameos both from the movies and the streaming world (as well as nods to the two biggest pieces of intellectual property in the Disney portfolio, proving that these days, even original screenplays are slaves to our franchise overlords). But it's overly busy and spreads itself thin in trying to bridge multiple worlds, which aren't linked by a consistent tone.  

It does do a pretty convincing job of making the viewer believe we would all be invested in the story of an anonymous character inside a digital world. But like a lot of video games, it only matters in the moment. Put the controller down and suddenly it doesn't seem so important anymore.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Free Guy'

GRADE: C+

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

Running time: 115 minutes

In theaters