image sourceAlan Markfieldimage captionOne critic has called Free Guy Reynolds' best film to date
It's difficult to hear the name Ryan Reynolds without thinking of Deadpool, the sweary and sarcastic alternative superhero he's best known for playing.
But in his latest summer blockbuster Free Guy, the Canadian actor portrays an altogether different kind of hero.
Reynolds stars as a kind and wholesome – but ultimately quite ordinary – bank clerk named Guy. Compared with the 44-year-old's previous film roles, it's quite a gear change.
"Well, my default is just pure trash, on the inside," he laughs. "So this is slightly new for me. There's something really wonderful about playing a character who's kind of naïve and innocent."
The movie's titular character lives in Free City, a fictional universe within a video game. (The premise is a little out there, but we'll come to that in a second.)
After a chance encounter with a young woman named Millie, played by British actress Jodie Comer, he begins to question the confines of the virtual world around him.
"I think there's something really fun about exploring everything with new eyes, which is what this character gets to do, and filtering that through the prism of comedy and occasionally cynicism," Reynolds says.
"I love playing a character who's stepping out from the background into this new person."
image sourceAlan Markfieldimage captionComer and Joe Keery's characters believe their code and IP have been stolen
As the film progresses, Guy starts to notice peculiarities in the world around him. He ultimately discovers he is a bland background character in a hugely popular video game.
Guy exists only in this virtual landscape, rubbing shoulders with other characters who, unlike him, are operated by humans in the real world.
Thanks to some extremely advanced artificial intelligence code we won't attempt to explain here, Guy is the only NPC (non-playable character) in Free City who is able to think and feel things for himself. As a result, he starts to become bored with his everyday life.
And you can't blame him. Every morning he wakes up, says hello to his goldfish, picks up a coffee, has a polite chat to the barista and heads into work.
His bank is robbed at gunpoint several times a day as other characters attempt to gain points in Free City. (Amusingly, the bank's employees are increasingly bored with these routine robberies.)
No matter how injured Guy is, by the next morning he starts from scratch, good as new. He seems destined to have the same day over and over again for eternity, blending into the background of other people's games.
That changes after he meets Molotov Girl, operated by the real-life Millie, who helps him decipher what's really going on around him. She enlists Guy to help her take on Antwan (Taika Waititi), the creator of Free City, who she claims stole her code and IP.
The concept starts out resembling Groundhog Day , but by the end feels more like The Truman Show. It's a combination of action, comedy and science fiction, and is just the kind of summer blockbuster that cinemas depend on for ticket and popcorn sales.
image sourceDisneyimage captionReynolds is best known for playing Marvel's masked anti-hero Deadpool
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Free Guy is it's an original movie. It isn't part of a franchise, isn't based on a comic book, and isn't a sequel or spin-off. It's a brand spanking new idea, which you don't see in Hollywood much any more.
"It's hard to make a new movie," says Reynolds. "It's hard to make something that isn't based on some pre-existing IP [intellectual property], a comic book, a sequel. It's very challenging.
"So you get the movie and the script to a place where you feel like it's perfect, and then you have to make it 30% better somehow. Because you don't have any ability to rely on a pre-existing knowledge or fanbase, so you really have to go out there and prove it the old-fashioned way."
Director Shawn Levy, who also helmed Date Night and The Internship, agrees. "It's so rare that a studio lets you make a big-budget new movie," he says.
"My favourite thing in Free Guy is that we have Taika [Waititi]'s character mock the possibility and value of releasing something new. His character literally talks about the value of sequels, and has a cynical attitude towards the new."
Waititi, who wrote, directed and starred in the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit, plays the horrid video game company owner, who is constantly chasing profits via dubious methods.
What have the critics said?image sourceAlan Markfieldimage captionReynolds with Lil Rel Howery, who plays Guy's bank buddy Buddy
"This may well be Ryan Reynolds' best film," wrote Charlotte O'Sullivan in the Evening Standard. "It feels most original when exploring the highs and lows of gaming but you don't need to be an expert to get the gags."
Screen Rant's Molly Freeman described it as "the best video game movie ever", adding: "Free Guy is uproariously fun, delightfully charming and unexpectedly sweet, with Reynolds perfectly in his element balancing action and comedy."
"Video gaming culture has a wide puerile streak, and Free Guy isn't afraid to lean into it," noted the Telegraph's Ed Power. "There's lots of swearing and a few off-colour gags that seem aimed exclusively at 15-year-old Fortnite addicts.
"Yet alongside the bubblegum banter, it dances around deeper questions of free will and artificial intelligence."
Tim Grierson of Screen Daily was less enthusiastic, writing: "Once the story's initial burst of cleverness fades, director Shawn Levy becomes bogged down in convoluted plotting and the overfamiliarity of his seize-the-day message."
In his three-star review, Kevin Maher of the Times said: "As the film nears the climax it becomes guilty of the same excesses it seemed to pillory at the beginning – throwing everything at the screen, including enormous CGI effects, endless chases and fights, with decidedly diminishing returns."
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the movie was creating the virtual world the characters inhabit.
Its makers had to strike a balance between being accessible and understandable to non-gamer viewers while also appearing credible.
"We wanted to represent the gaming world correctly and accurately, and for that I spoke with a lot of game publishers, coders and game designers and played and watched a lot of games in pre-production," says Levy.
"But it was also important to make a movie which required no gaming fluency from a viewer who wasn't a gamer – a movie that was warm and fun and romantic. Trying to tick both boxes was always part of the goal."
image sourceAlan Markfieldimage captionUtkarsh Ambudkar and Keery play game developers attempting to track down Guy
"It's interesting to me," Reynolds adds. "Everybody says 'it's a movie based on a video game'. I really don't think Free Guy is a video game movie. That's like saying Titanic is a movie about boatmanship.
"It's a movie about so much more. But I loved the narrow target we had to hit to create a world which felt authentic to gamers, and then still smuggle this other story into that."
After several pandemic-induced delays, the film is finally released in the UK on 13 August. It was held back from jumping to a streaming service precisely so it could be seen on the big screen.
"Every film-maker wants the stories they tell to be seen as loud and as big as possible," says Levy. "And we live in a brave new streaming world, and I very much have some feet in that world as well.
"But Free Guy was made with one goal in mind, which is collective delight. That is an experience you can feel on your couch at home, but it feels really different with other humans in the dark."
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