Ryan Reynolds Transcends Deadpool as Lovable NPC in Existential Gaming Comedy.
DIRECTED BY SHAWN LEVY/2021
Ryan Reynolds is free to do whatever he wants. If he wants to put on a derivative Spider-Man costume and be hilariously profane while killing people, the world is all in for it. If he wants to be Detective Pikachu, or Pikachu’s dad or whatever that was, we’re okay with that. If he wants to star in a gawdawful body-swapping comedy with Jason Bateman, fine, we’ll look the other way. Everyone just loves Ryan Reynolds so much, doggonit, we’d simply never play games with our affection for him. We would, however, watch a movie in which other people play a game with him in it.
Downloading into theaters following an epic COVID-19 delay, the Ryan Reynolds existential action-comedy Free Guy is finally here. Bursting with major wall-to-wall visual effects and a highly likeable central character, it’s no wonder why the studio opted to sit on this one as opposed to dumping it to streaming months ago. Free Guy may not be brilliant cinema, but it holds its own with its contemporary gaming twist on familiar concepts of individuality, transcending one’s place, and quantifying one’s humanity that are kicked around in films such as The Matrix, The Truman Show, and The Lego Movie. In this way, among others, the film mostly sticks the landing as a very satisfying outing. It sets out to be no less than the crowd-pleasing reality-bender of the YouTube generation, and quite likely pulls it off. For good measure, it’s stocked with brief play-by-play-style cameos by some of today’s most popular YouTube gamers. (Shhhh…)
One morning, as Reynolds’ nameless generic “Blue Shirt Guy” goes about his identical daily routine, he is given the ability to go beyond his literally repetitive lot in life. Like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in They Live, he can suddenly see his world for what it is- and it is positively daunting. Health points, floating rewards, instructional captions, and plenty more that the gamers can see, but he previously couldn’t, are now plain as day to him. What will Blue Shirt Guy do with his newly acquired illumination? What does such knowledge mean for him as a benign gaming component? Quickly, his flesh-and-blood creators realize that something very special is going on… Ryan Reynolds’ Blue Shirt Guy, like Short Circuit’s Number 5 before him, is… alive. Well, kind of, anyhow.
Free Guy succeeds in cultivating a fantasy world that far outshines the real world. This is insofar as its explosion-filled video game cityscape being both considerably more cozy yet also exciting compared to its wooden, interior, and inert programmers’’ and players’ lives. When players immerse themselves in the #1 interactive phenomenon “Free City”, their sunglasses-sporting “Fortnite”-y avatars are encouraged to maim, steal and wreak attitude-addled havoc upon the digital world of innocent a.i. pedestrians, cops, baristas, and bank tellers.
Such escapist release is, of course, the raison d’être of most any video game, not to mention most mainstream movies. It only stands to reason that the quest to appropriate one form into the other persists despite a solid-state mega-drive’s worth of bungled and unmemorable efforts. To date, the inclination to incorporate the massive, massive appeal of video games has typically come down to adaptation. And, as everyone knows, movies based upon individual video games almost all suck to varying degrees.
Free Guy sidesteps such stigma in a way that feels entirely fresh while somehow also feeling overly recognizable. The world of “Free City” is basically a moosh-up of “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Sims”, regularly assaulted by the aforementioned wild player avatars. Thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence software developed several years prior by young independent creators and platonic-to-a-fault just-friends, Millie & Walter, aka “Keys” (Jodie Comer & Joe Kerry of the TV series’ Killing Eve and Stranger Things, respectively), the non-player characters (NPCs) behave and operate with near-human response and independence. The problem is that their proprietary a.i. has been swiped by Keys’ corporate boss, the aggressively eccentric Antoine.
Antoine, adorned in fuzzy trench coats and the like, is played with manic abandon by an ever-caffeinated Taika Waititi. As nice as it is to see Waititi on screen, this scenery-chewing performance is the singular most-wrong element of Free Guy. In a movie that splits its time between the real world where people make video games and the rollicking world of the most prominent game they’ve created, a rooted tone within the former is paramount in defining the latter as fantastical. In Free Guy, the “normie” a.i.s of “Free City” are more mundane than anyone in the real world. In the case of Waititi’s Antoine in comparison to Reynolds, the dynamic is entirely reversed. This is, of course, a deliberate decision (a calculated risk) on behalf of director Shawn Levy (helmer of the Night at the Museum series), but alas, one that goes awry in an otherwise fine endeavor.
There are plenty of laughs and world-hopping in a sort of Ghostbusters-meets-Tron way, with scads of c.g. eye candy to boot. Between the wealth of lite-snark humor and very of-the-moment cameos (shhh…), there’s no denying that Free Guy is forever timestamped “2021”. That, however, is not a bad thing- the same is also true every beloved movie mentioned in this review regarding their own release years. In this sense, Free Guy has a good shot at ranking in the continuum of such existential favorites as opposed to being forgotten as a pandering derivative. So, when you can tear yourself away from your games, get up a different head of steam, put on your blue shirt and take a pocketful of quarters to the theater for a round of Ryan Reynolds fun.