Ask Ryan Reynolds the inspiration for Free Guy – the hilarious new action-comedy about a bank teller who discovers he’s actually an NPC (non-player character) inside a brutal open world video game – then his answer is simple: Back to the Future.
‘It’s a movie that both Shawn [Levy, director] and I worship. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants here obviously,” says Reynolds, who plays the eponymous Guy, aka blue shirt guy, in Levy’s pastel-hued video-verse.
Not that there’s any specific similarities between the two films. “It’s more of a feeling that we were aiming for – so when you walk out of this movie, you’re walking on air. You have a feeling of elation and it’s an absolute fastball of joy while still dealing with subject matter that can be challenging,” he adds.
Co-starring Taika Waititi as slightly dim megalomaniac video game boss, Antoine, opposite Stranger Things’ Joe Keery and Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer as game developers, the odds for Free Guy hitting all the right marks, are well stacked.
Moreover, some of the video gaming world’s most influential figures drop in for cameos including Imane “Pokimane” Anys, Lannan “LazarBeam” Eacott, Seán William “Jacksepticeye” McLoughlin, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Daniel “DanTDM” Middleton.
“The film also tackles authorship and the idea that we can step out of the background and be a force of change and collectively shape and shift society in certain ways. And I think that the NPCs in our game world in the movie represent a lot of what we’re seeing, not just in 2020, but over the last century,” says Reynolds.
When Levy joins us, he has his own list of Free Guy influences including Ready Player One, The Matrix and The Truman Show, in terms of a secondary reality, with a little Edward Scissorhands, Big and Elf for good measure.
“Guy is definitely a descendant of Tom Hanks in Big and Buddy the Elf. The innocence. The boy inside the man. That’s the spirit of our protagonist,” says Levy, whose films include Night at the Museum and Date Night.
Indeed, Reynolds’ sweetly naive character is in stark contrast to his acerbic blockbuster alter-ego, Deadpool.
“My default is just pure trash on the inside, so this was slightly new for me. There’s something really wonderful about playing Guy, who is like a four-year-old adult,” he says.
Jodie Comer’s character exists in both the real world as Millie and in the video game as Molotov Girl, and if audiences are used to seeing Comer pull off many of her own stunts in Killing Eve, then she admits her skills are no match for a video game character.
“Molotov can flip and do all these crazy things but I think her essence comes from the real person, which I really loved. I tried to do as many stunts as I possibly could, but I had a wonderful stunt double, Hayley, who did the real badass stuff,” she says.
Both Levy and Reynolds were sent the script at the same time in 2018. “We thought it was good, a big idea about a background character in a video game who realises that his whole life is inside a game,” the director recalls.
“But when we met, all of our critical conversations became about theme. It was very much about, ‘Oh, you live in a world that is violent, unfair, unequal… You don’t need to be a spectator to a world that is sh–ty. You can be a participant in change. You can have agency and empowerment in the way that your world is reshaped’,” adds the director.
“So back in 2018, we felt like those were resonant themes. But to be here today, thinking about those themes of impacting your world. Themes of class. Themes of the inequality in social structures – it’s unbelievable to me how much more relatable and applicable they are now than even a year or two ago.”
Both Reynolds and Levy are adamant that Free Guy is a meta-comedy to be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike.
“Even though it’s set in a somewhat nihilistic video game world, I wanted the movie to be the opposite of nihilism,” insists Levy.
• Free Guy opens in cinemas on August 12, and September 9 in NSW