We’ve come a long way since Disney released “Tron” 39 years ago — so far, in fact, that some people actually buy into the theory that what we think of as existence could be just a giant computer simulation, as Elon Musk described at Code Conference in 2016: “Forty years ago we had ‘Pong,’ like two rectangles and a dot. That was what games were. Now 40 years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously, and it’s getting better every year,” Musk mused. Therefore, “if you assume any rate of improvement at all, the games will become indistinguishable from reality.”
In “Free Guy” — an inventive, much-better-than-you’d-expect 2020 summer tentpole that’s finally being released post-pandemic — Ryan Reynolds plays a video game character who doesn’t realize that his world isn’t real. Guy is what’s known as an NPC, or “non-playable character.” In a realm of ones and zeros, he’s a zero: just another of the generic background sims who serve as collateral damage for carnage hounds in a game called “Free City,” a “Grand Theft Auto”-style free-for-all where players are encouraged to wreak havoc, joyriding and blasting their way through a virtual metropolis.
Wearing a look of almost Capraesque simplicity on his mug most times, Reynolds’ upbeat, blue-shirt-and-khakis bank teller has just enough programming to hit the deck during a stickup, or to utter a stock phrase before being struck by a car in the street. And like Neo in “The Matrix,” he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. “Free Guy” focuses on the moment all that changes — the red-pill rift when his consciousness blows open, after the minimal AI that governs his behavior evolves enough to give Guy something resembling free will (and a pretty raunchy sense of humor, considering how oblivious he is to most things).
Whether through a lack of originality or a desire to minimize the exposition in a movie whose elevated concept could’ve gotten unnecessarily complicated, the opening minutes of “Free Guy” borrow heavily from both “Deadpool” and “The Lego Movie,” as Reynolds wryly narrates the rules of his world: In “Free City,” the “sunglass people” are the heroes (represented here by a self-deprecating Channing Tatum), while everyone else are NPCs, blithely going about their “lives” in an endless, uninteresting loop (a “Groundhog Day” conceit that lifts still more DNA from other films, including last spring’s game-based action comedy “Boss Level”).
OK, so “Free Guy” isn’t the most original movie of all time, but what matters here is how co-writers Matt Lieberman (“The Addams Family”) and Zak Penn (“Ready Player One”) make it fresh. Simple, by asking: What would happen if Guy, an NPC, fell in love with one of the players he sees inside the game? It’s like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in reverse, where the hubba-hubba fantasy girl isn’t an imaginary toon but the avatar for Millie (Jodie Comer), aka Molotovgirl, the Pygmalion-like coder who conceived him. So long as audiences like Guy (and he’s played by Ryan Reynolds, so what’s not to like?), it’s easy to root for an impossible romance between the pixelated Romeo and his flesh-and-blood ideal.
Inventively brought to life by “Night at the Museum” helmer Shawn Levy (who designs Free City to look like a cross between a studio backlot and one of those pliable cityscapes seen in “Inception”), the movie’s overstuffed plot divides its time between the game Guy inhabits and Millie’s “real world,” where she and former programming partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery) have parted ways. Keys now works for Soonami, the big-time gaming company that acquired their idealistic early project and, if Millie is correct, buried their code somewhere inside “Free City” instead of developing it as agreed (which, I’m pretty sure, is something software companies are free to do as they please after purchasing someone else’s work, but no matter).
Like Jeff Bridges’ character in “Tron,” Millie sneaks into the game trying to prove that the developer “swiped our AI engine for his shooter.” Needless to say, all those intrigues are considerably less interesting than Guy’s quandary inside the game, although Levy balances things out somewhat by casting Taika Waititi as Antwan, the massively uncouth Soonami owner who comes across as a hilarious combination of all of Silicon Valley’s worst character traits: disgustingly rich, immature, abrasive and inclined to treat everyone who works for him as expendable peons.
Waititi makes his entrance late in the film but nearly hijacks it when he does, inventing a uniquely larger-than-life greed- and attention-monger bent on forcing the millions of “Free City” players worldwide (glimpses of whom we see in hovels and internet cafés) to upgrade to his forthcoming sequel. Apparently, “Free City 2” isn’t backward compatible and will effectively wipe out the revolutionary AI miracle of Guy’s rapidly self-improving personality — just like pretty much every video game sequel ever, by my understanding.
This would be a good point to admit that my own investment in video games dried up almost 30 years ago, when the Sega Genesis came along and rendered my 8-bit Sega Master System obsolete a month or two after I’d poured my life savings into the console. I pretty much stopped playing video games (or anything more complicated than “Candy Crush”) at that point, whereas my brother now spends more of his waking hours gaming than doing anything else. “Free Guy” wasn’t made for me so much as it was for those who invest actual dollars in in-game currency, buying skins and who-knows-what to enhance their avatars.
“Free Guy” assumes a certain level of video game literacy, as in vaguely “Matrix”-like action sequences where Keys and Soonami colleague Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) enter the game as virtual cops and take out offending players (is that a thing?), or when Antwan reboots the game in order to wipe Guy’s brain (aren’t there easier ways to bug-fix?). When all that fails, Antwan takes a fire ax to the server room, which strikes me as one of those Hollywood conceits — like the virus in Sandra Bullock thriller “The Net” melting the screens of every computer it infects — that the filmmakers have embellished to make a thoroughly uncinematic geek concept more exciting.
But let’s be honest: “Free Guy” is a lot of fun, despite the fact that Levy and the screenwriters seem to be changing the rules as they go. Reynolds might be a little too charismatic to be believable as a personality-devoid NPC (the way that Jim Carrey always seemed too chirpily self-aware as the ostensibly naive star of “The Truman Show”), but it’s a thrill to watch the character come into his own, as “Blue Shirt Guy” (as the fans following his exploits in the game call him) levels up in a hurry.
Less experienced, Comer and Keery are young TV actors (from “Killing Eve” and “Stranger Things”) still trying to pin down their respective big-screen appeal, and they come off more generic than the virtual dude their characters invented here. I’m skeptical that the world really wants the “fishbowl game” they developed, or that people would rather watch an autonomous video game than play one themselves. But “Free Guy” is all but guaranteed to make audiences think differently about NPCs. The medium is still in its infancy, and 40 years from now (if Musk is right), when those virtual characters are sophisticated enough to be indistinguishable from people, it could be fun to go back and see how much “Free Guy” got right.