Say what you will about Free Guy (2021), it’s certainly specific. Indeed, part of the fun is imagining how incomprehensible its gaming details might appear to your past self, and wondering how the film will age as the medium that inspired it evolves. Free Guy’s protagonist is a nondescript bank teller named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who lives in the violence-plagued streets of Free City. Guy doesn’t know it, but he lives in a virtual game world; worse, he’s a non-player character, going through the motions on a daily loop that never changes. Guy is a complacent cog in the digital machine until he encounters a player character named Millie (Jodie Comer) who triggers something deep within his code, inspiring him to agency. Unlocking the gameplay mechanics of Free City, Guy starts to level up, primarily in the hopes of winning Millie, but ultimately, he ends up transforming the game itself while embroiling himself in a contentious legal battle between the real-world Millie and the profoundly villainous game producer Antwan (Taika Waititi) who stole her code.
Conceptually, Free Guy is a film that seems inevitable, given the increasing ubiquity and power of the video-game industry. And who wouldn’t greenlight a film with the elevator pitch “What if a non-player character became self-aware, and it was Ryan Reynolds?” Early on, the film gets plenty of mileage out of this promising scenario, both in terms of comedy and skiffy spectacle, which converge nicely around the notion of agency-free entities such as Guy and his security guard friend Buddy (Lil Rey Howery) blithely accepting the daily perils of living in a crime-infested virtual world — one that brings out the inner GTA sociopath in most of its players. The script if rife with great sight gags and has fun with Guy’s incrementally eroding naivety, which Reynolds plays with boundless comedic charm, and there’s even built-in thematic meat in the dual-meaning title: the idea of an entire subclass of oppressed digital entities earning their liberation.
Somewhere in the middle, though, Free Guy starts to degrade under the weight of preposterous, hand-wavey game-design details engineered to help the plot unfold in the most cinematic, timely ways possible. The second half feels ruthlessly focus-grouped, particularly in a romcommy subplot involving Millie’s game-designing partner Keys (Joe Keery), and everything ramps to an MCU-ish action-spectacle meltdown. Reynolds is dependably funny, Comer proves she’s adorable with any accent, and the scenario delivers a fair number of laughs and diverting images, but this one lost my interest well before the end.