4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
Left, Blue-shirt Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a non-player character (NPC) in the video game ‘Free City.’ Guy battles Dude (Aaron Reed) the “bigger, badder version of himself,” during a climax scene in “Free Guy.”
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2021; PG-13 for profanity, crude suggestive references, strong fantasy violence; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Microsoft Movies (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)
Best extra: The 15-minute “Welcome to Free City” (disc & digital)
OVER THE last twenty-plus years, Canadian filmmaker Shawn Levy has become a major Hollywood player. He started directing TV series in the late ‘90s, then family comedies including “Cheaper by the Dozen” (2003) and the “Night at the Museum” series (2006 & 2009). Levy then launched 21 Laps Entertainment and produced and directed a number of films for older audiences including “Date Night,” (2010), “The Internship” (2013), then produced the Oscar-nominated sci-fi “Arrival” (2016) and the highly successful, Emmy-winning Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
Before COVID-19 raced across the globe Levy produced and directed the action-comedy “Free Guy.” But, like so many other films, it was shelved during the pandemic until it hit theaters in August 2021, part of the new 20th Century Studios (formally Fox) – now part of the Disney empire. Levy gives the film lots of style from a Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn script. Its box office racked in a solid $321 million worldwide and received favorable reviews from critics with 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 94 percent with audiences. The storyline clearly has shades of Peter Weir’s ‘90s classic “The Truman Show,” Pixar’s “Wreck-It-Ralph” and Spielberg’s “Ready Player One.”
Our hero is Guy (Ryan Reynolds) ... except he’s not a real guy, only a non-player character (N.P.C.) within the world of ‘Free City,’ a non-bloody action-packed video game played by millions every day. He finds himself in a continuous loop putting on a blue shirt and khaki pants and giving his goldfish a cheerful good morning before starting his day as a bank teller. Each transaction ends with Guy giving his daily motto, “Don’t have a good day, have a great day.” Then, it’s interrupted with some armored villain busting into the bank and shooting up the place as he and his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the bank’s security guard, dive for cover.
At the end of his day, he and Buddy walk home, when Guy spots his dream girl. She’s a “badass” avatar named Molotov Girl, played by the charming Jodie Comer, alias Millie, an independent gaming programmer. Guy averts his normal NPC path and follows her to the outer limits of Free City, which sets off a chain of events that reverberates in both worlds.
(1-3) Every morning Guy wakes up and puts on a blue shirt and khaki pants and gets a coffee before heading to work as a bank teller. (4&5) Several times during the day the quiet bank is robbed by avatar players within Free City. Guy and his best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) the bank’s security guard, dive for cover.
The genesis of “Free Guy” started in 2018 when Reynolds reached out to Levy via text, simply stating, “Hey, what are you doing next spring? I think I’ve got something for us,” as Levy explains in the featurette “Welcome to Free City.”
They met the next day and Levy knew, “This was the perfect combination of a big idea, an actor I admired and wanted to work with, and a real opportunity for singularity, originality, and fun.” Both classify each other as “casual gamers” with a lot of “old-school action back in the day,” Levy says. “Free Guy” takes a deep dive into “what is essentially a culture inside the culture.”
Guy comes to himself and realizes, “Well, maybe I can be a player.” “It’s like a “Truman Show” for the digital gaming culture,” Levy explains. The thing about games is “when you’re playing a video game you’re involved in the story,” says actor Joe Keery, who plays Keys, a computer programmer for gaming tycoon Antwan (Taika Waititi) owner of Free City. Millie is pursuing a lawsuit against the egomaniac CEO of Soonami Studios, as he prepares to launch “Free City 2.” We discover he stole the underlining coding for Free City from technology she and Keys developed for their own game.
(1) Avatar Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) alias Millie, an independent gaming programmer, is seeking evidence that Free City’s code is based on code she developed. (2&3) Guy encounters Molotov Girl, who is singing Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” and he tells Buddy he’s going to follow her. (4) Millie in the real world.
Production designer Ethan Tobman and Levy were determined to make the real world “messier, less saturated, and more lifeless,” Tobman says. Life within the computer game would be filmed with the large-format 6.5K ARRI digital camera for more clarity, but the higher resolution was lost with its 2K mastering, a product that saves money and time with its rendering of 348 FX shots.
The colors in Free City are dialed toward the warmer side and more vivid, while the “compositions are cleaner, more wide-angled, and more symmetrical,” Levy says. Boston is the backdrop for the computer world, but the team changed every storefront, every sign, every billboard, every traffic light, and every vehicle. “We wanted them in models and customized edition cars and colors that are all dialed up reality. So, the streets are very much a world that “feels a little bit like our own, but way better,” says the producer/director.
The disc and digital include three deleted and extended scenes, four minutes of gag reels, the “Dude vs. Guy” featurette highlighting the NPC muscular version of Guy played by 6’ 7” bodybuilder Aaron Reed. Guy ends up fighting the “bigger, badder version of himself,” Levy says. Reynolds’ face was inserted digitally over Reed’s face while doing dialogue – which had never been done before with much success. The three additional featurettes are “Creating Molotovgirl,” “It’s Taika’s World” and the favorite “Welcome to Free City.”
(1&2) Guy decides to challenge an avatar bank robber played by a tween gamer (Charlotte Levy) and her foul-mouth little sister (Colette Levy). (3) Guy puts on the avatar sunglasses and for the first time, he can see the gamer display. (4&5) Keys (Joe Keery) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar) both computer programers for Soonami Studios, enter Free City as a police officer and a large pink rabbit to find Blue-shirt Guy.
The 4K (disc & digital) are upconverted presentations from the original 2K master, reducing clarity differences between the higher resolution 4K and the HD version. The smallest details on Guy’s face and distant street signs are more pronounced, but not by much. While the HDR10 (disc) and Dolby Vision (digital) are graded with darker and more defined mid-tones and highlights. The HD seems too bright in most scenes, but the color palette with both formats is nearly identical. Both have rich colors – especially the blues and natural facial toning.
The 4K (disc & digital) provides the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which only sends video game and environmental effects to the
height speakers. The score from composer Christophe Beck (“Frozen,” “Ant-Man”) and pop tunes – fan “Fantasy” from Mariah Carey, the theme from TV show “Greatest American Hero – Believe it or Not,” and hip-hop favorites “100 Miles and Running” from DMV artists Logic and Wale and “The Humpty Dance” from Digital Underground – are relegated to the front speakers and subwoofer. Dialogue is nicely balanced, and is never lost during effects like the high-impact gunfire and helicopter buzzing over Free City.
Ryan Reynolds’ charm gives “Free City” plenty of delightful moments. It’s a good time for anyone 11 years old and up.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch, producer
(1&2) Molotov Girl and Guy team up to find the code within Free City. (3) Antwan (Taika Waititi), the egomaniac CEO of Zoonami Studios. (4&5) Romantic feelings develop between Guy and Molotov Girl, as Millie is embarrassed by the kiss.
(1) Channing Tatum has a cameo role as avatar player Revenjamin Buttons. (2-4) Guy and Molotov Girl rally the other (N.P.C.) as Antwan decides to destroy Free City.