August 24, 2021

Following a string of tepid films throughout the 2000s, with comedies such as The Proposal (2009) and action films such as Green Lantern (2011) and R.I.P.D. (2015), Ryan Reynolds was at a crossroads. He didn’t quite fit into the rigidly defined packages of either genre. It wasn’t until 2016’s Deadpool that he found his footing. Melding his comedic chops with his charismatic frontman-like presence, he carved out his niche in the action-comedy landscape.

It is this same character that Reynolds brings to Free Guy, the latest offering from director Shawn Levy. A fresh spin on the “Are we living in a simulation?” idea, Free Guy is a cheesy rom-com mashup between The MatrixGroundhog Day,and The Social Network.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is an NPC, or non-playable character, in a virtual, open-world video game. While real players from around the world log on and play online, Guy’s character is programmed into the virtual world itself. Like other NPCs, Guy has a specific function that repeats infinitely to make the world feel more realistic for players.

The NPCs’ dull and cyclical lives are the core of Free Guy’s pathos. Are we all just repeating lines of code in some simulation? To borrow from Oscar Wilde, “To live is the rarest thing in the world; most people just exist.”

Until Guy catches a glimmer of how the players see the game — controlling their own actions, making rash and inexplicable decisions on a whim — he goes about his business as usual. He breakfasts every morning at the television, picks up a coffee with cream and sugar on the way to work, and then spends his day stamping loan applications.

Amid all of this, the film tells a parallel story set outside the digital realm, at the software company behind the video game. After picking up on Guy’s sporadic behavior, which transgresses the constraints of his NPC programming, one developer, Keys (Joe Keery), realizes that the game was built using a stolen artificial intelligence engine he had developed with fellow computer science researcher Millie (Jodie Comer).

Though it’s largely Reynolds’ smooth charm and comedic timing that carry the film, the supporting cast is no slouch either. Comer, playing the brains behind Guy’s AI, stays perfectly on beat with Reynolds. When Guy becomes self-aware and meets Comer’s character in the game, Comer, like a dancer leading a tango, guides the lovestruck Reynolds through the loops and hurdles of the virtual world not coded into his subroutines.

As an engineer, I always find myself scrutinizing minor details in movies focused on technology, thinking “this would never happen,” or asking “why were no industry professionals consulted on this scene?” In Free Guy, the video game company CEO character, Antwan (Taika Waititi), feels entirely contrived and out of place.

As if stealing the artificial intelligence tech for his game wasn’t malevolent enough, he has to act like some cartoonish villain to be more easily identified as the antagonist. In one scene, Antwan, unable to boot Guy from the game through changes to the source code, takes his vexations to the server room, looking to take the game offline entirely. Antwan uses a literal ax to hack away at the company’s servers (though they have power buttons and detachable power cables!) while calmly calling the security guard to escort out an employee he just fired between ax swings.

But these are minor quibbles from an engineer. Free Guy is a well-cast, lighthearted action-comedy, tastefully seasoned with a plethora of references to pop culture. It affably blends a host of genres with a heaping supply of philosophy to pick at, cleverly candying its deep underpinnings with a bounty of laughs and slick action scenes.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner