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‘Free Guy’: Ryan Reynolds at top skill level in clever video game comedy

He’s perfect as a cheery background player who goes rogue and disrupts his digital world — and the real world.

A bank teller (Ryan Reynolds) in a video game is used to the armored villains he sees roaming around and shooting every day in “Free Guy.”
20th Century Fox

When I say Ryan Reynolds is the Burt Reynolds of his generation, I mean that in the best possible way, because you know what?

Burt Reynolds was pretty darn great.

He was leading-man handsome and he could play the romantic lead, he had the comedic chops to play the fourth-wall-breaking rebel who was always sticking it to the man — and given the right role, e.g., “Deliverance” or “Boogie Nights,” he could do awards-level work.

Ryan Reynolds checks those boxes as well, though I don’t think he’s had his “Deliverance” or “Boogie Nights” moment yet. (The closest he’s come to that kind of gravitas was in the little-seen gambling drama “Mississippi Grind.”) In the meantime, he’s perfectly cast in the video-game action comedy “Free Guy,” the latest in the genre of movies about virtual worlds and reality colliding, whether it’s “The Truman Show” or “Inception” or “Serenity” or lighter fare such as “Ready Player One” or even “Wreck-It Ralph.” Reynolds knocks it out of the park as an eternally optimistic patsy who discovers he’s a patsy and then takes some pretty bold steps to rectify that, mostly because there’s a woman and he’d do anything to be with her, because she’s really something.

Directed with great style and a suitably pop-art look by Shawn Levy from a script by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, “Free Guy” nimbly toggles back and forth between the real world and the world of “Free City,” a globally popular video game played by millions every day. Inside Free City, we meet Reynolds’ Guy, a bank teller who puts on the same blue shirt and striped tie and khaki pants every morning, says a chipper hello to his goldfish, Goldie, orders the same coffee from the same barista and heads to work — where some armored villain or another will inevitably burst in and start shooting up the place, because after all, this is a video game.

This doesn’t bother Guy or his best friend, a security guard named Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), in the least, because this the way things work in Free City. They hit the ground, they avoid the carnage, they talk what they’ll do after work — and the next morning, they’ll do it all over again, in the exact same fashion.

What Guy and Buddy don’t know is they’re both NPC’s, or Non Playable Characters, in the “Free City” video game. In other words, none of the humans playing the game can choose Guy or Buddy, or the coffee barista, or the customers in the bank, et al., as their avatars. They’re just digital background extras adding an extra measure of realism to the game. (When we’re inside “Free City,” Guy and Buddy and everyone else are seen as live-action characters. When we see folks in the real world playing “Free City,” they’re animated figures.) Ah, but one day Guy spots a badass action avatar named Molotov Girl (a superb and charming Jodie Comer), and he deviates from his NPC pathway — and this sets off a chain of events that reverberates in the “Free City” video game and in the real world.

The “Free City” action avatar Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) catches Guy’s eye.
20th Century Fox

As Guy’s actions have a ripple effect within the game, confounding and eventually delighting players all over the globe, there’s some real-world drama involving an enormous d-bag of a video game company guru named Antwan (Taika Waititi, hamming it up). He has reaped the benefits of “Free City” and has stolen the VR technology created by the likable but timid Keys (Joe Keery), who agrees to take a job with the company, and the independent rebel Millie (also played by Comer), who is pursuing a lawsuit against Antwan to prove he stole the work she did with Keys.

This might sound awfully complicated, but director Levy does a nifty job of switching back and forth between the worlds, and even having the worlds collide, in a relatively straightforward manner. (Still, it’s a hoot when we discover the hulking, sexy, dangerous avatar played by a self-deprecating Channing Tatum is controlled by the stereotypical video game geek who’s always yelling at his offscreen mom.) As Guy and Molotov Girl embark on a rom-com journey that includes bubblegum ice cream and venturing to the very edge of “Free City,” Keys and Millie work together to expose the evil Antwan for his corrupt ways. It’s a bit loony to have these twin romances going, given Millie and Molotov Girl are one and the same, but we’re somehow equally invested in seeing Guy, Molotov Girl, Keys AND Millie get the happy endings they deserve. Thanks in large part to the vibrant, funny, sweet, endearing work by Reynolds and Comer, “Free Guy” delivers.