As one of the few movies in 2020 that’s standing its ground when it comes to theatrical release, director Shawn Levy’s Free Guy looks like it’s the sort of blockbuster we could have expected in a normal summer release window. And if the world hadn’t gone and taken the turn that it did, that’s exactly what we would have gotten, as the Ryan Reynolds comedy was supposed to have opened this past July. However, expectations aren’t everything, especially when it comes to this particular movie, as whether you’re a pro or a noob, you won’t need to be a full-blown gamer to be interested Free Guy.
This much was true the moment I walked onto the set last July, as Disney and 20th Century Studios arranged for several journalists to attend a day in the set life of this blockbuster comedy. The world of Free Guy’s video game world Free City looked pretty much like our own. Of course, as we saw in the film’s trailer released at the end of last year, there’s a lot of big ticket effects and Ryan Reynolds-style schtick colliding to make Free Guy something like we’ve never seen before.
Still, if you watched the trailers for the film, you might be wondering if you need to have a gamer’s background to enjoy this trip around the fictitious Free City. A hybrid of Fortnite costumes and dance moves and a PG-13 friendly Grand Theft Auto vibe, there was already talk about how this film might sell itself towards gamers, and some even wondered if an E3 presence would be a part of that platform. Director Shawn Levy helped address that point, and the larger point of attracting all audiences to Free Guy, with a very simple statement:
It's not exclusively for that audience. If we do our job well, it's going to make a gamer feel seen and like we got certain things right, but it should be more broadly resonant and relatable than just gamers.
Any movie, be it an original IP or a franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars saga, or even the Fast and Furious films, has to walk that fine line between drawing in the Venn diagram of people it’s obviously built for, while also appealing to newcomers. But when you’re a fresh project like Free Guy, there obviously needs to be a stronger hook for those who aren’t as up on the subject matter as the faithful gamers. Which is the perfect link to something that Ryan Reynolds said, as he spoke alongside Shawn Levy during our set visit:
I always look at like, sports movies are good metaphors. The greatest sports movies ever made are not actually about sports. Field of Dreams, I wouldn't characterize that as a baseball story. They used baseball as a vehicle to tell a really beautiful story about a son and a father trying to connect. And I think that we're doing the same thing. We're using the video game world, the Free City world and video game culture, as a sort of a vehicle to tell this really beautiful and powerful human story.
Just as you don’t have to know a home run from a base hit to break into tears when Kevin Costner asks his dad to play catch, you don’t need to know what spawn camping is, or have a particularly impressive kill-to-death ratio, to get Free Guy’s charms. In fact, that’s something that probably benefits the moviegoers who will be attracted to this adventure, as it’s been built right into the character of Guy.
The happy-go-lucky bank teller who endures countless robberies on a daily basis, Ryan Reynolds’ protagonist is a Non Playable Character, or NPC for short. But as Free Guy progresses, Guy learns the reality of his environment, and proceeds to expand that education when he retrieves a pair of glasses that gives him a player’s perspective. That journey is the magic element that helps any audience member get onboard with the story, and as Shawn Levy explained through a metaphor borrowing from HBO’s Chernobyl and its storytelling devices, it works for the following reasons:
You know what also helps is, if you have a character who is realizing the rules of a world, you're able to have an audience surrogate. So I just saw something where I was like, 'Oh, like Chernobyl.' I was watching Chernobyl and I was like, ‘Wow, that was brilliant to have the [Stellan] Skarsgard character know nothing, so that the other guy could literally explain how a nuclear reactor works.’ And it's basically a very smart way of educating the audience about the rules of engagement, the rules of the game. Free Guy does something similar because as Guy awakens [he thinks] 'Wait, what is happening? How does this work?' It allows us to have him learn it, just as a non-gaming audience member would be learning it. But I think the other thing is to never be so inside-y, wink-wink, inside baseball with the jokes, that half the audience feels excluded. But that is the line we're going to walk and it's a line I'm sure we're going to continue to explore as we edit the movie and put it in front of audiences and realize that, 'Have we gone far enough? Have we gone too far?'
With the December release date still in the cards for the time being, Shawn Levy is going to have plenty of time to continue to find that balance in the editing room for Free Guy. Clearly hoping that both non-players and pro gamers can find joy in this friendly, but destructive action-comedy, moviegoers can expect a lot of heart, with some references scattered through the landscape it's waiting to share. Free Guy is set to log onto the world of Free City on December 11th, and we’ll have more coverage of our visit to the set as we get closer to that date. But don’t forget to check out our 2020 and 2021 release schedules, as they will be updated whenever a project decides to stay on course or jump to the next level of release.