October 21, 2021

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‘Free Guy’ review: Ryan Reynolds cheerfully runs up the score in a video-game action comedy

Although there’s a bit of “Ready Player One” baked into the colorful world that Reynolds’ Guy inhabits, a more appropriate (if loftier) spiritual heir would be “The Truman Show,” to the extent the central character discovers that the world he’s living in is completely artificial, a construct for the amusement of others.

Adding a degree of difficulty, Guy is a resident of Free City, a place with an inordinately high crime rate, where working at the bank, as he does, means happily dropping to the floor without even interrupting a conversation with his best pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) when someone barges in to rob the place.

Guy, it turns out, is a non-playable character in this videogame world, living out the same routine over and over. All that changes, however, when he encounters Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer, an Emmy winner for “Killing Eve”), a visitor from the outside who has entered Free City on a very specific mission, and who stirs reactions in Guy that bring him very close to tilt.

What’s happening here? Getting into that too deeply would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say the avatars in the game world don’t bear much resemblance to their real-world counterparts, and that Comer’s outside-the-game self, Millie, is at odds with the head of the videogame company (Taika Waititi, amusingly over the top) behind Free City, setting up a threat to Guy’s world just as he’s rediscovering his place in it.

Directed by Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) from a script by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn (who, yes, wrote “Ready Player One”), “Free Guy” offers plenty of gamer-specific gags — as well as a dollop of “Tron” in Millie’s quest — but one needn’t be immersed in that sphere to appreciate the movie. That’s in part because the film exhibits an equally strong grasp of pop culture in general, including several cameos, one of which is so good as to practically be worth the price of admission all by itself.

For Reynolds, who has perfected the smart-alecky demeanor of “Deadpool” to the point of almost being shackled by it, Guy represents a rather deft expansion — a character that capitalizes on his leading-man qualities while wrapping him in an innocent, almost-childlike package, since so much of all this is utterly new and foreign to him, which proves oddly endearing.

Perhaps inevitably, “Free Guy” seeks to run up the entertainment score and would have benefited from saying “Game over” a little sooner, but for the most part the film moves briskly, coming to a satisfying conclusion after the protracted chaos leading up to it.

The summer movie season has offered a mixed bag, with results further clouded by simultaneous streaming and Covid. “Free Guy’s” ability to break out from that malaise remains to be seen, but it’s such a cheerful, good-natured exercise it deserves to have a long shelf life, whether or not it powers up on this level.

“Free Guy” premieres in US theaters on Aug. 13. It’s rated PG-13.