Free Guy is the perfect example of how to approach ‘video game movies’

Ryan Reynolds' latest movie isn't adapting a pre-existing property, and it's all the better for it

Free Guy

I really enjoyed Free Guy.

The latest from 20th Century Studios, the movie follows the non-player character (NPC) Guy (Vancouver’s own Ryan Reynolds) as he tries to save his virtual world from being deleted by Soonami, its greedy publisher. Along the way, he teams up with “Molotov Girl,” an in-game avatar being controlled by a coder named Millie (both played by Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer) whose work was stolen by Soonami.

It’s a solid premise that leads to a highly entertaining, well-acted, feel-good comedy about aspiring for more and seizing the day. Plus, who doesn’t love the national treasure that is Ryan Reynolds? And if that weren’t enough for Canadian connections, director Shawn Levy and composer Christophe Beck hail from Montreal, while the late, great Sudbury, Ontario-born Jeopardy host Alex Trebek makes a nice little cameo.

But what I admire most about the movie is how it approaches the concept of “video game movies” — it’s a completely original IP. That’s pretty notable because it goes against Hollywood’s traditional “direct adaptation” take on video games, which I find so counterintuitive. World of Warcraft is beloved for being an MMORPG, a highly social experience played for years on end — can a two-hour movie really capture a fraction of that? Outside of seeing that über-gory aesthetic in live-action, would you really rather watch Mortal Kombat characters tear one another apart instead of getting to do so yourself in one of the fighting games?

Or look at Naughty Dog, one of my favourite developers, which has been celebrated for crafting high-quality, cinematic video games like Uncharted and The Last of Us. The former, for all intents and purposes, is essentially just a playable Hollywood blockbuster à la Indiana Jones or Mission Impossible. Why, then, are we getting an Uncharted movie? To take a game so deeply inspired by films and then turning it into a film is pointless.

“Free Guy, at its centre, is most interested in its titular hero’s stature as an NPC and the world he inhabits as the basis for his character’s journey.”

And while there’s a little more reason to be optimistic about HBO’s The Last of Us series given the talent attached, the same concerns also apply. Remove the interactivity and what differentiates it from The RoadThe Walking Dead or any other post-apocalyptic dramas? Why tell Joel and Ellie’s compelling father-daughter story again, especially without the moments you controlled and experienced that helped develop that bond?

Free Guy, by contrast, actually does right by the medium by celebrating its unique strengths. In a similar vein to Pixar movies examining the everyday lives of such background objects as toys and cars, Free Guy rather ingeniously focuses on a generic NPC in a Grand Theft Auto Online-style open-world crime game. Of course, the film makes the requisite gags that come easily with this, like “tea-bagging” and “angry man-child who lives with parent.” There are also amusing easter eggs pointing to the likes of Portal 2Mega Man and Fortnite.

But Free Guy, at its centre, is most interested in its titular hero’s stature as an NPC and the world he inhabits as the basis for his character’s journey — one of self-discovery and finding love. By no means is this The Truman Show in terms of quality or depth, but it’s effective in hitting similar beats in a more crowd-pleasing way. More importantly, it’s an arc that you get to see unfold for the first time here, rather than it being a bland retread of one for an existing character that was told far better in a video game that meaningfully explored said arc over the course of many hours.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Free Guy doesn’t completely shy away from the nastier side of the games industry. Specifically, Millie’s story is that of a plucky indie developer who, along with her partner Walter (Stranger Things‘ Joe Keery), was royally screwed over by the AAA games industry. Seeing their code used cynically by a millionaire looking only to further line his pockets when they wanted their game to be more unique and emotional is, sadly, quite reflective of the dominance of easily monetizable, trendy games.

“What these movies and Wreck-It Ralph and Free Guy all have in common is focusing on new and charming relationships between their characters, and that sets them apart from most of their peers.”

Of course, this is a breezy comedy first and foremost, so it doesn’t explore this in a super in-depth way — look to Apple TV+’s stellar video game comedy series Mythic Quest for a stronger examination of this subject matter. But it’s still nice to these themes come up in a Hollywood movie, and we’ll hopefully see more of this sort of story in other big-budget films.

I don’t want to say much more so as to not spoil some of Free Guy‘s sweetest moments, but the best comparison I can make on why the film is successful is Wreck-It Ralph. Free Guy is a winning take on video games in similar ways to Disney’s 2012 film. Sure, there were some fun video cameos from the likes of Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog, but the story was actually more cleverly centred around the nostalgic elements of arcade games. Through that familiar-yet-fresh framework, the filmmakers were able to tell an endearing story about two misfit video game characters becoming friends.

(Spoilers below:)

You can even draw parellels to Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu (which also stars Reynolds), which are arguably the best video game movies so far. While they’re based on long-running gaming franchises, they work because they take elements from the properties they’re based on and use them to tell original stories and characters. What those two movies, Wreck-It Ralph and Free Guy all have in common is focusing on new and charming relationships, and that sets them apart from most of their peers.

To be clear, I’m not saying Free Guy is some kind of outstanding, Oscar-worthy film — far from it. It’s also not a flawless movie by any stretch. It’s tad overlong in its middle act and it feels like the writers tried too hard with the witticisms of the eccentric villain Antwan, despite actor Taika Waititi’s innate charm.

But looking past all of that, I appreciate that Free Guy knows exactly what it is and it’s actually trying to do something a bit more interesting in bringing video games to the big screen. Hopefully, we can get more of that and less of the decidedly soulless, derivative beat-by-beat adaptations.

Free Guy is now playing exclusively in theatres.

Image credit: 20th Century Studios

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