When the new 20th Century Studios movie Free Guy opens on Friday (August 13), one question will no doubt be on the minds of viewers emerging from the theater: Is director Shawn Levy and star Ryan Reynolds’ cheerfully bonkers video game adventure the start of a brand new franchise?
Reynolds stars as Guy, an unassuming and always upbeat bank teller in the unusually violent metropolis of Free City, whose life is a curious mix of repetitious routines like getting coffee with best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) and having his bank robbed by a brutal criminal gang.
But all that changes when Guy, with the help of a mysterious woman named Molotovgirl (Jodie Comer), discovers that he not a real person at all but a background player in an open world video game called — you guessed it — “Free City.”
“I’m a little superstitious,” says Levy when Den of Geek asks him about the film’s potential to kick off a new franchise. “We have some really fun ideas for where Guy could go next. But I’ve also learned over the years, man, I’m going to make one thing as perfectly as I can. And then it’s in the hands of the box office and cultural fates.”
Levy does know a thing or two about launching both franchises and cultural phenomena. He has directed and/or produced hits like the Night at the Museum trilogy, Date Night, Cheaper by the Dozen and Real Steel. He’s also an executive producer and sometime director on Stranger Things, the massively successful Netflix supernatural series that’s currently prepping its fourth season.
Meanwhile, Free Guy’s terrific advance word of mouth, in some cases, is hailing it as the best movie yet to be set in the milieu of the video game world. But Levy still doesn’t want to talk about a sequel.
“Right now, we’re trying to do something that is not done very often anymore, which is to release an original movie theatrically,” the director explains. “People don’t make these movies anymore. We got to make one, and we got to make it on our terms. And it turned out exactly as we’d hoped. That feels like a privilege. And hopefully people will show up in enough numbers that we get to talk about a sequel.”
The deceptively simple plot of Free Guy finds Reynolds’ always sunny and positive Guy somehow caught up in a real-life battle between his creators and the publishing mogul (Taika Waititi) who bought their idea and possibly stole their codes.
The movie touches on issues like free will and personal choice, while also slyly commenting on the lure — and danger — of immersing oneself too deeply in the virtual world of a game. Yet it does all that while bringing “Free City” to life on the big screen in a way that captures the aesthetic of a video game like too few films have done before.
Oddly, however, Levy does not count himself among the large percentage of people who devote so much of their time to the worlds of gaming.
“I would not describe myself as a gamer or a hardcore aficionado,” the director admits. “And the same is true of Ryan. We came into this knowing that we wanted to make a movie that felt authentic to gaming culture, but wasn’t limited to gaming culture. So we tried to walk that line and service that audience, but also a broader audience as well.”
The result is a movie that finds empathy and even compassion within the often harsh, predatory realm of gaming — something often missing from previous video game movies. Even though Free Guy is literally swimming in pop culture cues, Levy opines that creating the movie’s central game from whole cloth, instead of being linked to an existing property, has liberated the filmmakers.
“I think that’s all the difference,” he says. “The reason it’s a challenge when you’re doing an adaptation is you’re trying to make a great satisfying new movie, but you have to work within the parameters of fan expectations. You have to be loyal to certain lore and elements of the game, or you will be murdered by fans of that game.”
With Free Guy, on the other hand, Levy, Reynolds, screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn and the entire production had no such restrictions — something Levy had experience with while working at one point on the long-developing adaptation of Uncharted (which he’s no longer involved with).
“I had the absolute kind of maximum creative freedom of creating a new original film and creating the video game,” he continues about Free Guy. “So the only rules and mythology and characters and aesthetics that I needed to be loyal to were the ones that I created.”
Those rules and characters, along with that mythology and its aesthetics, are sitting right there where Levy left them at the end of Free Guy, should he and Reynolds want to return to the world of the title game.
“I’ve been lucky in my career to have made a number of shows and movies that became franchises, and it’s very gratifying when something catches a tailwind like that and penetrates the culture in that way.” But Levy refuses to entertain the notion of Free Guy 2…for now. “There’s percolating ideas, but I’m presuming nothing.”
Free Guy opens in theaters this Friday (August 13).