Ryan Reynolds playing a character that makes fun of tropes? OK, that’s not a stretch. The “Deadpool” star isn’t exactly breaking new ground in “Free Guy,” his new movie that toys with video game standards for laughs.
While Ryan Reynolds is busy playing Ryan Reynolds, “Free Guy” is the latest film to intermix our love of video games with our love of movies. But the crossover (so far) only seems to work one way; there are plenty of popular, good movies based on video game culture. “Jumanji: The Next Level,” “Ready Player One” and “Wreck-it Ralph” all did well at the box office and sat well with critics.
However, it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Rotten Tomatoes’ top-rated movie based on a video game is 2019’s “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” with 73% positive reviews. As a comparison, the Marvel comic book movies have 13 movies rated higher.
Some of the best adventure video games feel like movies. “Uncharted” and “Red Dead Redemption” play like a screenplay unfolding in front of you. And there have been dozens of beloved video games turned into movies. The “Resident Evil,” “Tomb Raider” and “Mortal Kombat” game series offer film upon film. But none of them are particularly good — it’s enough to make video game fans mash the reset button. So why does Hollywood keep trying?
Because video games have a built-in audience with millions of fans, who might be curious to see a movie based on a game they’ve spent weeks or months playing.
Matthew Ball, who led strategic planning for Amazon Studios, told The Associated Press there’ve been plenty of bombs, but Hollywood will eventually make it work.
“Comic-book IP is the biggest IP in the world right now, and yet it took 40 years to really get into the spotlight, and it took 50 years to become the biggest thing,” he said. “Video game adaptions have been happening since the early ’90s, but we see a lot of evidence that people are learning — they’re training. At some point in the near future, I would be shocked if we didn’t have on a recurring basis one of the biggest films and TV series of the year coming from video games.”
Certainly, Hollywood is still trying. A Steven Spielberg-produced “Halo” series is planned to arrive on Paramount+. Netflix plans to release a series based on “Assasin’s Creed.” Sony is working to adapt “Ghost of Tsushima” with “John Wick” director Chad Stahleski.
The best video game movies
The trick to making a good video game adaptation seems to be not adhering religiously to the source material. “Sonic the Hedgehog” has plenty of flaws, but at its core, it’s a buddy movie romp that includes a road trip. The 2021 version of “Mortal Kombat” moved in the right direction, with an R rating and gory finishing touches. It doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, and it grossed nearly $100 million.
But perhaps the all-time best movie based on a video game is “Detective Pikachu.” Yeah, we said it. Like the other movies here, it’s an offbeat adaptation, and it netted about $433 million at the box office.
Perhaps most important to the success of "Detective Pikachu" was the presence of Reynolds. If anybody knows how to make a movie adaptation, it’s the “Deadpool” star. Critically, Reynolds is the star and producer of “Free Guy,” which was released in mid-August. “Free Guy” fits squarely into the genre of movies about pretend video games. It’s a genre that’s much more critically acclaimed and has seen more box-office success.
The best movies about video games
Shawn Levy, the director of “Free Guy,” worked on a movie adaptation of “Uncharted” for a year before leaving to work with Reynolds. Levy told the BBC in an interview that the problem with video game adaptations is that the productions have too many rules to follow.
“It’s possible to be creative, but you’re never completely unshackled,” he said. “You’re always beholden to the lore and expectations of the video game.”
It’s a lot easier when you’re making a movie about a pretend video game. Maybe that’s why those movies have been so much better.
It’s hard to beat 2012’s “Wreck-it Ralph,” which racks up an 87% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Ralph is a bad guy in the video game, but he wants to be the good guy. What follows is a classic, silly Disney-animated redemption tale.
Not close enough to a real video game for you? We can do better. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “Jumanji: The Next Level” are both action comedies based on a pretend video game that sucks people into the game itself. They’re funny, a little bit twisted and there’s even a little bit of character growth.
And if you want a movie about people who play video games, “Ready Player One” is probably your best bet, with a 72% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. The plot centers on a young gamer who, along with a few friends, tries to win a competition to take over a virtual world.
In “Free Guy,” which led the box office in its opening weekend, Reynolds plays a non-player character (or NPC — you know, the kind you can run over with no consequences in “Grand Theft Auto”). He becomes a sentient NPC and tries to save the world. It’s not unlike the plot for one of his many movies based on comic books.
“I think people will recognize elements of 'Grand Theft Auto' and 'Fortnight' and a lot of games that use formats not too dissimilar to this,” he told the BBC.
That’s funny because being dissimilar is usually a good thing for movies about real video games. In fairness, it took decades for Hollywood to figure out what to do with comic books. (Does anybody remember 2004’s "Catwoman"?) With movies in the works for “Uncharted,” “Halo” and a high-profile “Assassin’s Creed” series in development, maybe Hollywood’s video game productions will soon match the quality we expect from comic book movies.
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