Director Shawn Levy's latest is both deeply silly and surprisingly endearing, even as its explosions and insult-comic banter tweak the outer limits of PG-13.

Ryan Reynolds has played several kinds of superhero on screen in the past decade, to varying degrees of success (oh, the dim light of Green Lantern), though his most enduring contribution to the genre may not be a character at all, but a whole archetype: Call it Meta Man, droll rodeo clown of the multiverse — the merry quipster who never met a Zamboni joke he wouldn't make or a fourth wall he couldn't break.

In Free Guy (in theaters Aug. 13), he is not strictly super, though he is in fact a guy called Guy: resident of a gleaming metropolis called Free City, where he pops up out of bed every morning like an ecstatic meerkat to the disco squiggle of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy," puts on a fresh blue dress shirt, and heads off to work at the local bank. "Don't have a good day, have a great day," he instructs every customer, beaming. And yet he and his best friend, bank security guard Buddy (Get Out's great Lil Rel Howery), are remarkably unsurprised by the rotating cast of second-tier Batman villains who rob the place with alarming regularity; they just shrug, drop to the floor, and chat cheerfully about their after-work plans until the smoke clears.

Guy doesn't seem to mind this casually homicidal Groundhog Day loop, but he longs for a lady in his life. So when his dream girl (Killing Eve's Jodie Comer) strides by him on the street one day, oblivious, he dares to reach beyond the comfort zone of his morning Mariah and blue button-downs (it's still the same color, it's just a cotton henley now). That's when he discovers, Truman Show–style, that he is not a man at all but an NPC — a non-player character in a video game conceived in part by his new crush.

Free Guy
Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in 'Free Guy'
| Credit: Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios

Inside his world, she's Molotov Girl, a cool assassin in leather pants with a crisp British accent; outside of it, she's Millie, an American coder whose idealistic original creation with her former partner, Keys (Stranger Things' Joe Keery), has been co-opted for a bloody and enormously successful first-person shooter driven by a swaggering tech lord named Antwan (Taika Waititi, having a ball). If Guy can learn how to navigate the loopholes of what an NPC can do, he and Molotov/Millie might figure out a way to prove that Antwan stole her and Keys' work, and maybe get Guy his first kiss too.

Those stakes are treated with approximately equal weight by director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, The Internship), which sets it apart from the C-plot status of most romances in chaotic popcorn fodder like this. So does the movie's overall tone — both deeply silly and surprisingly sweet, even as its explosions and insult-comic banter tweak the outer limits of PG-13. Waititi gleefully leans in to Antwan's toxic tech-bro moguldom, a peacocking bully in Yeezys who berates his employees and barely understands the rules of his own game. And the celebrity cameos come fast and loose: Channing Tatum, at least one MCU hero, even the late beloved Alex Trebek.

Elaborate wig work aside, Comer slips as easily into two wildly different personas as she did so regularly (and memorably) on Eve. And Reynolds is still very much on brand in his familiar screen mode as the antic joker who serves up one-liners like they're being pinged from a ball machine. But the prancing anarchist of Deadpool has been supplanted here by a much kinder, gentler soul; as word of the rogue NPC spreads, gamers across the world begin to rally for Blue Shirt Guy not just because he's a novelty — they don't entirely understand that he's actual proprietary AI — but because he's nice.

Though Free Guy is one of many projects completed well before the pandemic, its release now feels fortuitously in line with the Ted Lasso mood of the moment, and the general pivot from sneering antiheroes to more atypical ones — like a Guy so at ease in his masculinity that his sincere love of '90s R&B songbirds and bubblegum ice cream can peacefully coexist with his action-man imperative to save the world and get the girl (who regularly, refreshingly, saves herself). In a genre where winky self-awareness has become standard-issue, Free might have come off as manic and hollow; instead, it has fun having a heart. Grade: B

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Free Guy (2021 movie)
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