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Midway through “Free Guy,” the new video game adventure comedy filmed in Boston from Disney/20th Century Fox, a game programmer (played by Newburyport native Joe Keery, of “Stranger Things” fame) indignantly asks his CEO (Taika Waititi, “Jojo Rabbit”) why they can’t make an original game for once.
“IPs and sequels, that’s what people want,” Waititi’s character responds, before inventing a new KFC product on the spot — “KFC 2: Kentucky Fried Chicken chicken” — to prove his point.
While doing press for “Free Guy,” director Shawn Levy has made a point to note that his film is one of the only Disney blockbusters in the last decade that isn’t a sequel, reboot, or tied into some sort of intellectual property. And while “Free Guy” doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, it’s an enjoyable romp with an original plot that makes the most of its charismatic leading man, Ryan Reynolds.
The film opens with Guy (Reynolds) waking up in his apartment. Opening a closet full of identical outfits, he heads to his job at the bank, where every single day he hangs out with his security guard pal (Lil Rel Howery), tells people to have a great day, and is repeatedly robbed.
While he doesn’t realize it, Guy is a background character in the (fictional) video game “Free City,” a wildly successful cross between “Grand Theft Auto” and “Fortnite” played by millions around the globe. As an NPC (non-playable character), Guy’s limited programming keeps him happy and satisfied. That changes when he meets Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), a player who unintentionally gets Guy to break out of his shell.
In the real world, Molotov Girl is Millie, a video game designer who is determined to prove that Free City’s publisher, Antoine (Waititi), stole her game’s code and integrated it into Free City. Her design partner, Keyes (Keery), still works for Antoine, and surreptitiously assists her in her quest.
Millie and Guy form an amusing team, with Millie assuming Guy is a hacker and Guy unaware that a world outside Free City exists. To prove his worth, Guy gets himself a pair of glasses that allow him to play the game, but he chooses to level up through acts of kindness rather than the stealing, shooting, and wonton mayhem Free City is famous for.
Guy’s in-game antics garner worldwide attention, and he becomes the subject of memes, “Today” show segments, and, in a jarring moment, a clue on “Jeopardy!” read by the late Alex Trebek, who filmed the cameo in 2019 before his death. Antoine is not pleased by these developments, seeing Guy’s goodie-two-shoes routine as bad for business. With a vague awareness that Millie is hunting inside the game for proof that he stole her code, he decides to shut down Free City entirely.
Playing Guy, Reynolds is fully in his element. The actor has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s de facto audience surrogate, thanks to his role as the wisecracking, fourth-wall-breaking superhero Deadpool. Here, he serves a similar function. Even though Guy is sweetly naive and wholly ignorant of the real world outside his pixelated confines, Reynolds can’t help but add a little of his trademark sardonic wit to particular line readings.
The notion that millions would become fascinated by a video game character seems a bit far-fetched, but the film lends additional authenticity to the idea by enlisting a host of famous Twitch streamers like Ninja, Jacksepticeye, and Pokimane in cameo roles. Folks of a certain age will have no idea who those people are, but for a vast swath of Gen Z who see them as household names, their participation is well-integrated into the plot.
With the threat of a permanent shutdown looming, Levy and Co. surprisingly succeed at getting you to care about the fate of Free City’s citizens, despite them being rote and one-dimensional by design. If Guy can level up, why can’t the barista programmed to dole out only medium coffees with cream and sugar learn how to make a cappuccino? Why can’t a character named Bombshell (played by Camille Kostek) leave behind rotten men and focus on her own desires?
For locals, the fact that “Free Guy” was filmed in the Boston area adds an additional layer of enjoyment. The majority of the action was filmed in the Financial District, with Liberty Square serving as the hub of Free City. Movie magic brings Revere Beach right to the edge of South Station, and additional scenes were filmed in Framingham, Lynn, Randolph, Weymouth, and Worcester.
Comer, so brilliant as unhinged assassin Villanelle in “Killing Eve,” wasn’t given much material to work with this time around. Her attempts at witty repartee with Reynolds fall flat — though with lines like “Enjoy your lifetime supply of virginity,” the blame may rest with the screenplay.
When all is said and done, “Free Guy” hasn’t so much subverted the sequel and IP-obsessed Disney as it has found its place within the hierarchy. For all his sly remarks and winking references, Reynolds (as Guy) is a willing participant in the assembly line system. He’s like the middle manager who assures you they’re on your side, rolling their eyes about the latest corporate directive, but happily cashing the paychecks.
Thanks to an outside-the-box plot and a heavy dose of Ryan Reynolds, “Free Guy” will keep you entertained. It has laughs, in-jokes, and a surprising amount of heart.
“Free Guy” is one of the only major Disney releases that isn’t immediately streaming on Disney Plus, and it’s well worth a trip to theaters, especially if you’re a fan of Reynolds and/or video games.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
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