Free Guy : The video game-inspired romantic comedy movie.

Free Guy : The video game-inspired romantic comedy movie.

The film Free Guy depicts a bank teller (Ryan Reynolds) who realises he is a nameless background player in a hyper realistic video game. In a story that alternates between the actual and virtual worlds, he decides to break free and establish his own path.

Disney returns to the theatrical-window form this weekend with Free Guy, the video game-inspired romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, following the industry’s and Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson’s outrage over the studio’s day-and-date strategy. The movie also features Killing Eve star Jodie Comer, dinosaurs, a gun-toting rabbit, crashing helicopters and cameos by Channing Tatum, late Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and famous gaming YouTubers.

“It’s an action, comedy, adventure kind of film. It’s inspiration is ‘Back to the Future’ and movies like that,” said Reynolds.The film is set in a video-game world, but Reynolds says that doesn’t make it a video game movie. “We’re kind of smuggling a lot of other themes into that premise,” he said.

In theory, “Free Guy” should work. The new action-adventure flick stars Ryan Reynolds as a naive, generic Everyman — he’s literally named Guy — who blithely pays no mind to the daily ritual of armed robbery and gun violence that plague his hometown of Free City.

That’s because Guy is nothing more than ones and zeros: a background character in a sprawling, havoc-filled video game along the lines of “Grand Theft Auto.” Predictably, Guy comes to realize that he’s something more than that, aided by a dash of artificial intelligence and an inkling of love and affection for a woman (Jodie Comer, charming as ever as both a real-world player named Millie and her digital avatar, Molotov Girl). For Guy, life is worth living. So far, so great.

It’s the sort of almost-profound idea that co-writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn might have dreamed up while playing hours and hours of video games, and imagining the fully fleshed lives of the pixels that populate their screen.

Playing against this charming, lively idea is another, darker one: There’s a virus coursing through the system of “Free Guy.”

At its core, the movie wants to deliver a message against the monoculture pervading society. Find fulfillment on your own terms, it seems to say. But what could have been an inspiring romp about discovering what makes each of us unique is merely a movie that gets in its own way, gorging on pop culture references. The film’s climax includes several smack-you-over-the-head references to films from Marvel and Disney (the parent company of “Free Guy’s” production studio). While this might please fans of those cinematic universes, some others will probably be baffled as to how a story about the quest for singularity can be reconciled with such naked promotion of some the most generic blockbusters of all time.

Taika Waititi plays an over-the-top executive for the company that makes the game “Free City,” and he’s pushing something called a crunch on his programmers to finish the sequel (a real-life problem in which workers are forced to put in overtime to meet a game’s release deadline). Waititi’s tyrannical boss is suspected of engaging in intellectual property theft of another game world — one created by Millie and her coding partner (Joe Keery) — in which players simply exist in a utopia. Casting Waititi, the director of “Thor: Ragnarok,” in the role of a villainous corporate overlord is an extra meta touch. But to engage the movie on its own terms, “Free Guy” never quite reaches its final level.

It’s difficult not to believe that a greater version of this film’s premise could exist: one that increased the cultural satire while still having fun throwing low-key, sly references at the audience. However, “Free Guy” simply plays itself at the end, which is disappointing.


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