Review: Heart at the core of video-game flick ‘Free Guy’

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy / 20th Century Studios

Confession time. I’m not a gamer. Like many folks of my age, I was enamored by Atari home video games in the late 1970s, but when the company went belly up in the early 1980s, video games fell off my radar and never really made another blip.

Sometime in the early 2000s, I bought a gaming system because at the time is was the least expensive way to purchase a Blu Ray player, but after spending a couple of hours trying to figure out the NCAA football game, I punted and returned the game for store credit and stuck to my Blu Rays.

So admittedly, I’m not the audience for “Free Guy,” 20th Century Studios’ latest film, starring Ryan Reynolds as a back-ground character in a video game who gains sentience and actively begins to play or live within the video game, Free City.

I went to the theater hopeful I’d enjoy the movie, but doubtful, particularly after being bored with Reynolds’ other summer release “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” earlier this summer.

Happily, I report that “Free Guy” is a charming romantic-action comedy that’s one of my favorite movies of the year. The movie has a great deal of heart with a fine script by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn and deft direction by Matt Liebermann, who has fun showing off all the wild bells and whistles of the game, but makes sure the love story that’s at the core of the film shines through.

Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy / 20th Century Studios

In many cases, modern films aren’t about anything but special effects, shootouts and car chases, but the crux of this movie is that Reynolds’ character, Blue Shirt Guy, only truly comes to life when he begins to seek something more.

That more comes in the form of Jodie Comer, who plays Millie, a game programer who created an artificial-intelligence program that was ripped off by video-game mogul Antwan, played hilariously by Taika Waititti . Antwan is not only using her game engine for his current hit but soon will be launching a new game based on her program that will functionally erase any claim Millie has to the game engine.

Millie’s former design partner and boyfriend Walter, played endearingly by Joe Keery of “Stranger Things” fame, still works for Antwan despite the fact that he stole Millie and his work and put the kibosh on their game before launching his.

Millie as her inside-the-game character Molotov Girl is searching for evidence to prove that Antwan ripped her and Walter off when she meets Blue Shirt Guy, who comes to life much like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz when he meets Millie and realizes there is more to life than the mundane script he’s been following.

The film, which also features a number of very funny cameos by the likes of Channing Tatum, Hugh Jackman, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Evans and the late “Jeopardy” host Alex Trek, has loads of humor action and effects, but it turns on the love story at its core.

Reynolds’ performance at first is pretty annoying, but his character and his bitter-sweet tale grows on you. Comer pulls off both sassy and sweet in her duel role, and Keery might be even better in this film than he is in “Stranger Things.”

Waititti is perfectly cast as the evil game designer, and Lil Rey Howery as Buddy the security guard and Utkarsh Ambudkar as a game-designer friend/rival of Walter steal scenes left and right.

The video-game action is more the frosting on the cake for this film which at its core is about how we all long for human connection even though we often sink too much of ourselves into our work and hobbies.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 55 min.
Grade: A-

New in Local Theaters

Free Guy (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 1 hr. 55 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, 112 Drive In, Skylight

Respect (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 25 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Don’t Breath 2 (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 39 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle

Classic Corner

Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home / Paramount Pictures

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

One of the oddest and for my money best of the Star Trek films is “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” In celebration of the movie’s 35th anniversary, it will have special showings at the Malco Razorback on Aug. 19 and 22.

Directed by Leonard Nimoy, the movie features the classic Star Trek crew of Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scottie (James Dohan), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Sulu (George Takei) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) on a time-traveling adventure to 1986 to capture a pair of whales, extinct in the crew’s present day, to help answer a distress call from a seemingly alien cylindrical probe that is emitting an indecipherable signal, responsible for disabling the Earth’s power grid.
Explaining the plot makes it sound much more complicated than how it plays out on the big screen. The film is the most amusing movie in the series as the Enterprise crew attempts to blend into the Earth’s late 20th-century culture in several delightfully funny scenes.

The movie also contains a romance for Kirk with marine biologist Dr. Gillian Taylor, played with aplomb by Catherine Hicks, of “Seventh Heaven” fame. At first she opposes Kirk and Spock’s plan for the whales, whom she has cared for at the San Diego aquarium, where she works, but eventually, she gets on board with the Captain and his crew figuratively and literally.

The film’s special effects, which were state of the art for their day, suffer in comparison to what sci-fi fans have come to expect on the big screen today, but “Star Trek” was always more about story and character than big-budget effects, and both of those still work with this film.

Much of the fun is seeing favorite characters all get key moments, which makes it a stand-out production for fans of the original series. Those who prefer latter Star Trek series or those who have not been introduced to the original crew through the 1966 TV series might not find the movie quite as appealing.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory / Wolper Pictures

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

In conjunction with Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events, the Malco Razorback theater will have a special showing of the 1971 fantasy classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” at 3 p.m. Sunday in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary.

Gene Wilder stars as the mad chocolatier, who hides five golden tickets in candy bars. The lucky ticket-finders win a trip to Wonka’s chocolate factory with a guest of their choice and a lifetime supply of chocolate. The movie is a musical adaption of the 1964 Roald Dahl children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

Charlie wins the last golden ticket and joins four bratty children and their chaperones on the tour of a lifetime that is both amazing and creepy. Each of the five children’s own character faults leads to what seems to be somewhat disastrous consequences.
Wilder is both charming and more than a bit menacing as Wonka, who reminded me of a loony Batman villain from the 1960s TV series, but it turns out he’s not as mad as he seems. Wonka uses the tour as a morality challenge for the five children. Did Charlie pass? You’ll have to see the movie to find out.

Peter Ostrum gives a solid child’s performance as Charlie, but Jack Albertson provides the film’s emotional heart as Grandpa Joe, who goes on the tour with Charlie. The sets and color schemes are fantastic, and they no doubt will look amazing on the big screen. “The Candy Man” is the perfect song for a movie about Wonka.