Producers: Ryan Reynolds, Shawn Levy, Sarah Schechter, Greg Berlanti and Adam Kolbrenner   Director: Shawn Levy   Screenplay: Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn   Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Joe Keery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Taika Waititi and Camille Kostek   Distributor: Twentieth Century Studios

Grade: C

Shawn Levy’s highly derivative action comedy is meant to make you feel good, and it succeeds, up to a point.  But in at least one respect it’s extremely depressing: it’s based on the premise that the whole world is obsessed with a carnage-laden video game called Free City, which has made the company hawking it, Soonami, rich and powerful.  That may be a true reflection of the state of things today, but if so it’s a sad observation on modern culture.

The movie’s hero is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who isn’t a real guy at all, but a character in that video game.  Not an important figure—just a non-player character, a teller in a bank who’s programmed to fall to the floor when a sunglass-wearing robber—the sunglasses indicating a player—bursts in.  Otherwise he seems to have a happy, uncomplicated existence as he wakes, dresses in blue shirt and khakis, eats breakfast, walks to work with his pal Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), the bank’s singularly ineffectual guard, comes home and goes to sleep again. 

It’s the conceit of the movie that Guy, Buddy and the other background figures in the game go through the same repetitive motions each day in this “Groundhog Day” fashion while around them the city is riddled with violence of every sort committed by the avatars of the players.  The rules of the game, and what the players are trying to achieve, remain nebulous. 

So does the explanation for the unusual transformation Guy undergoes.  Apparently it results from some advanced element in the original coding, but all that’s clear is that the change begins when he sees the beautiful Molotov Girl, the avatar of Millie (Jodie Comer).  His infatuation makes him start thinking and acting on his own, and before long he’s taken the sunglasses from one of those bank robbers and donned them himself, becoming an “independent” actor in the game, and the blue-shirted hero of many of the players observing him.

He’s also what Millie has entered the game to find.  She—along with “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), who works at Soonami—was responsible for creating the AI-enhancing code behind Guy’s sudden metamorphosis.  They intended it for a non-violent game they were fashioning, but wicked entrepreneur Antwan (Taika Waititi), the wild-and-crazy owner of Soonami, sneakily bought their work out, and the code somehow found its way into “Free City.”  Now, as Guy comes to defy the “Truman Show”-like obliviousness of an NPC, Keys and Millie find themselves thrown together to stop Antwan from obliterating the game—thereby eliminating Guy’s evolution—and replacing it with a wholly new sequel.

Meanwhile, of course, Guy is becoming ever more his own man and encouraging the other NPCs to break their chains, too.  Eventually he becomes the leader of a rebellion and must try to ”break out” of Free City via a bridge over the sea that will take him beyond an invisible barrier to an island of sweetness and light, presumably the creation of Millie and Keys.  But to succeed in his quest he’ll need to defeat Antwan’s beefy creation, the CGI-rendered Dude, who looks suspiciously similar, for some reason, to Guy himself. That takes the movie into what was perhaps inevitable but is still unfortunate: a long, tedious, effects-stuffed battle that drains away the charm the movie has cultivated. There’s an upbeat coda, but that can’t entirely undo the damage.

Perhaps if you’re an inveterate gamer all this will make some small sense to you, but if not you can just choose to go with the flow if you wish.  Reynolds makes a likable underdog to root for, eschewing his smarmy, wisecracking Deadpool shtick to go blankly amiable, and Howery makes a typically broad sidekick.  Comer excels in her dual role as an idealistic coder and a kick-ass game player, and while Keery is a bit colorless as her obvious soul-mate, he gets by.  Waititi goes for broke as Antwan, starting out maniacally and ramping up exponentially as Guy’s successes mount; he winds up swinging an axe at Soonami’s servers with a degree of vigor that would make Jack Torrance envious.  Whether you find his ravings amusing or irritating will be a matter of taste.

The movie also includes an array of cameo appearances, most pretty fleeting but one so extended as to be a part of the ensemble.  The actor’s identity won’t be revealed here, but he shows up early, and you won’t need to be eagle-eyed to recognize him.

“Free Guy” is absolute eye-candy, with blazing visuals and rampant VFX, as well as a barrage of self-referential nods to Disney-owned properties.  The Free City sequences are particularly stunning, but Ethan Tobman’s design of the Soonami headquarters is pretty impressive too, and cinematographer George Richmond captures it all in sometimes blinding images.  Dean Zimmerman’s editing can’t conceal the phoniness of the effects, but then they’re meant to be of visual-game quality, nor does Christoph Beck’s score transcend his customary mediocrity.

The idea of escape is central to “Free Guy.”  The hero wants to escape his anonymous, repetitious role in Antwan’s game, and the city he’s stuck in.  The filmmakers have designed the movie as an exercise in pure escapism.  But as you’re enduring its boringly bombastic finale, you just might feel like escaping the theatre.