Mid-America at the Movies: "Free Guy" and the box-office magnetism of Ryan Reynolds

Bridget Shileny and Robert Maharry
The Grundy Register

Is Ryan Reynolds a good actor? It’s a seemingly ridiculous question to ask about the second highest paid movie star in the world, who made over $71 million in 2020, but there’s a massive gap between critical and audience opinion of the Canadian born hunk. Reynolds built his brand on raunchy slapstick comedies like “Van Wilder” and “Waiting” before spending most of the 2010s working in action and superhero franchises culminating with the first two “Deadpool” films, which were the highest grossing R-rated releases of all time until “Joker” surpassed them in 2019. 


To his credit, Reynolds, as one might expect, isn’t upset about the prospect of raking in tons of money starring in movies that everyone sees, and he’s in no big hurry to pivot to prestige roles and chase Oscars. His latest, “Free Guy,” sounds a bit like a premise in the vein of films like “The Truman Show,” “Last Action Hero” and “Jumanji”: an everyday bank teller realizes he’s living inside of an open world “Grand Theft Auto” style video game, becomes a folk hero for doing good and attempts to stop a greedy, megalomaniacal developer (and code thief) from shutting it down. 


So, is “Free Guy” another hilarious hit from one of the most bankable leading men in the business or a lifeless dud that deserves to be deleted forever? Rob and Bridget checked it out in theaters over the weekend and are here to offer up some thoughts.


Before we get to the next level (excuse the video game pun), what’s your favorite Ryan Reynolds movie? 


Bridget: Though this might get my ‘girl-card’ revoked, I traditionally don’t love rom-coms. There are a few notable exceptions to this rule for me, and the Ryan Reynolds/Sandra Bullock film, “The Proposal” from 2009 is one of them. Granted, the movie is a little more Sandra’s than Ryan’s but it’s still my favorite Reynolds movie. 


If you’re like me, you’ve seen this one on cable a million times. It follows book publishing bigwig, Margaret, played by Bullock, and her lowly assistant, Andrew (Reynolds). When Margaret is about to be kicked back to her native Canada for violating her visa, she hatches a plan to marry Andrew. The problem is that Margaret is kind of a witch. Andrew eventually agrees to the plan and they travel to Alaska to inform his family about their engagement. As the family gets involved, including Andrew’s grandma played by the legendary Betty White, the movie is really funny and surprisingly touching. I’m sure you can guess what happens in the end, but the ride is quite fun. 


Rob: “Just Friends” from 2005 was a favorite among my friend group in college, and when I met my wife, we quickly bonded over our shared love of some of the songs from the movie like the instant classics “Forgiveness” and “Jamie Smiles.” Reynolds exudes boyish charm as Chris Brander, a former high school loser who left New Jersey for LA (yes, he did quote “Thunder Road” on his way out of the Garden State), lost at least 50 pounds and became a hotshot music producer in the process. 


Of course, he never fully shook off his affection for onetime best friend Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), and when the antics of one of his clients, the insane pop star Samantha James (Anna Faris, in what might still be her funniest performance) force him to spend some time back in his hometown 10 years later, those feelings bubble back up as wild hijinks unfold. Oh, and his brother Mike (Chris Marquette) harbors an unhealthy obsession with Samantha, so that just makes the situation even funnier. 


Chris Klein deserves special appreciation for playing Dusty “Lee” Dinkelman, a former classmate turned paramedic/aspiring singer-songwriter who hasn’t given up his hopes of finding love with Jamie either. If you’re in my age range, you’ve probably seen this movie several times and don’t need it recommended to you, but it’s the kind of lowbrow yet genuinely hilarious mid-budget comedy that simply doesn’t get made anymore. 


Alright, let’s talk “Free Guy.” Press the start button. 


Bridget: Reynolds plays Guy, a hapless bank teller, who doesn’t know that he is actually a NPC (non-player character) in the video game “Free City.” He soon becomes disillusioned with his monotonous, unchanging existence as the bank gets robbed every day and violence and crime surround him. (He is essentially living in a world similar to the game “Grand Theft Auto.”) One day, Guy gets a chance to don a pair of sunglasses that open his eyes to the game world around him as it gives him player-like capabilities. He also finally approaches the game character Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), who he is sure is the girl of his dreams. However, to impress her, he must “level-up” in the game. Rather than carjacking or killing people to accomplish this, he decides to be a good guy and starts to make waves in the game as “Blue Shirt Guy” when he levels up with his good deeds. 


Rob: In the real world, meanwhile, wunderkind developers Millie Rusk (she plays the game as Molotov Girl) and Walter “Keys” McKeys, who created a game of their own called “Free Life,” have gone their separate ways. Keys now works for Soonami, the company behind “Free City,” and Millie is suing Soonami and its messianic, larger than life leader Antwan (played by Taika Waititi) for allegedly stealing the code that she and Keys created together. When Antwan learns of Guy’s sudden popularity as a viral sensation, he sees it as a boost for the upcoming release of “Free City 2” and rolls with it-- until Guy becomes so beloved that he might actually ruin the plans for the sequel. Bridget, characters are important to this film, whether they’re human, players inside of the game or NPCs. Who were your favorites? 


Bridget: Reynolds of course is perfect in this role, but I feel like we have seen variations of this character from him many times before. So for me, I particularly love Joe Keery as Keys, probably because I’m a big fan of the show that made him famous, “Stranger Things.” Waititi as the villainous creator of the video game was also fun. We don’t get to see him in front of the camera as a person too much anymore (though he does a lot of voice-over roles), and I love the crazy energetic presence he brings to the screen.  He is totally at an 11 this entire movie and it works here. Rob, which character(s) did you enjoy most?


Rob: Well, he isn’t in the movie for very long, but Channing Tatum lights up the screen (and makes some wildly inappropriate comments) as the gaming avatar of a nerd eating Cheetos at his mom’s house who’s especially starstruck when he meets Blue Shirt Guy. Tatum mostly gets recognition for his looks, physique and dance moves (I loved “Magic Mike,” and I’m not afraid to admit it), so I’d like to shout out his incredible comedic timing and delivery in such a small role. I also loved the meathead “Dude” character who appears at the end, but I don’t want to spoil too much about him. Alright, Bridget, it’s time to call the question. Does “Free Guy” get a high score in your assessment? 


Bridget: Yes! Readers may be surprised to learn that I really liked this movie! (I feel like I haven’t said that about a new movie in a while). I’m not a gamer at all and don’t really care to watch people play video games, but I still really enjoyed this movie.

I’m glad Rob suggested we review this one, because otherwise I was probably going to pass it up or maybe catch it on streaming or rent it later. The big screen was the way to go with this one though. Because it’s a video game world for the most part, it has some cool visual effects as it submerses us in the world of “Free City.” It’s bright and vibrant and fun to look at. 

It reminded me a lot of “Ready Player One” in the fact that it moves in and out of the game and the real world often. “Free Guy” is the better movie though. The story inside and outside of the game was more compelling and the characters were just better. Rob, did you love this movie or did it make you want to enter some cheat codes to get through it faster? 

Rob: My endorsement is a little less enthusiastic, but I thought that all in all, “Free Guy” got the job done. The plot is pretty predictable from the beginning, and the effects look serviceable but mostly formulaic in the age of CGI everything. After catching “Last Action Hero” for the first time a few days ago, I kept thinking about what a truly great action director like John McTiernan or James Cameron could’ve done with this material (Shawn Levy, who helmed “Free Guy,” has done most of his work in romantic comedies), but the former hasn’t made a movie in over 15 years and the latter is immersed in developing at least 15 sequels to “Avatar.” 

The charm, of course, comes from Reynolds, playing a variation on a character he loves to rehash every couple of years, and the chemistry he and Keery develop with Comer in what can best be described as a digital throuple, in modern terminology. He’s always cracking jokes, making people smile and brightening the worlds of those around him with his programmed command: don’t have a good day, have a great day! Any closing thoughts, Bridget, or have we passed the final level? 

Bridget: Admittedly, this movie will not stick in my mind for weeks and I won’t ruminate over its emotional highs and lows for long, but it was a fun summer romp. It had the big blockbuster spectacle I want in a summer movie, yet it also had some heart to it. I would recommend it for moviegoers, whether you’re a gamer or not. Rob, take us out before it’s game over!

Rob: I’ll end with a humorous anecdote. During the screening I attended, there were a couple of older ladies a few rows behind me, and I just kept wondering if all of the gamer lingo, Twitch streamers and code talk sounded like a foreign language to them-- as a qualifier, I’m 30, and it practically does when I hear it. Regardless, I hope they enjoyed the show! 


Stay tuned for a special Back to School edition of the column next week, and as always, send your feedback and/or topic suggestions to Bridget (news@wrightcountymonitor.com) or Rob (publisher@grundyregister.com). Thanks for reading! 



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