It’s not a new observation to say that today’s film studio endeavors too often lean towards bankable IPs or branded content over fresh, creative stories, but more and more these days we’re seeing what the final form of that evolution actually looks like. Red Notice, the newest action “blockbuster” from Netflix, is that end product. Like the soylent green of films, it’s a formless goop lacking in personality, intelligence, or fun, and while it technically meets the definition of a consumable movie, it’s destined to leave your taste buds wanting with its lack of flavor or nutritional value.
Dwayne Johnson is a hotshot profiler for the FBI, but rather than tackle killers and weirdos his specialty is tracking down art thieves. On loan to Interpol, he helps catch the world’s second most-wanted thief, Ryan Reynolds, mid-heist, but a brief chase is followed by a startling revelation. The evidence suggests Johnson was actually in on the theft, and soon the two men are sharing a cell in an improbably remote Russian prison. Both have been set up by the world’s most successful and elusive art thief, Gal Gadot, but after escaping the fortress-like gulag, the two men find themselves in a race with her for an elusive treasure — Cleopatra’s third golden egg.
To be clear, these character-like placeholders have names, but seeing as none of the three leads are doing anything remotely resembling acting in Red Notice — all three are giving the minimal effort by memorizing a few quips and (presumably) showing up on time at the digital soundstage — those names are utterly irrelevant. Reynolds is endlessly snarky, Johnson is a continual straight man, and Gadot can’t figure out the difference between smugness and coolness. So yes, they’re all playing the exact same personalities they’ve been cultivating for years.
Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber clearly spent at least an hour or so punching numbers into an algorithmic calculator with the result being a film that checks the most basic of boxes. Action? Comedy? Three headlining movie stars? What could go wrong, asks Thurber as he high-fives the executives at Netflix, and soon a chant builds, moving from office to office, floor to floor, and soon every staff member from CEO Ted Sarandos to the recent college graduates in the mailroom to the streamer’s lead accountant with a heart condition is saying the same thing — “cinema dies tonight!”
This is an exaggeration, obviously, as movies will continue for as long as there are eyeballs and bank accounts, but it’s hard not to see Red Notice as just one more harbinger of doom for film lovers. While technically an “original IP,” the movie is actually anything but. Sure, the story isn’t tied to an existing franchise, but there’s a case to be made that all three leads are walking, talking franchises themselves. Each of them can play their respective roles here in their sleep — Gadot may actually be doing so — and it’s those human IPs that the film is built on. The rest is irrelevant meaning any plot element could easily be swapped out for another, and the end result would be the same.
In the right creative hands, all three can see their respective shticks work to a film’s benefit. Reynolds’ snark shines in Deadpool (2016) but is dead on arrival in R.I.P.D. (2013). Johnson’s tough straight-man persona works beautifully in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) but falls flat in Baywatch (2017). Gadot’s flat affect makes sense as a stranger in a strange land in Wonder Woman (2017), but it crumbles under scrutiny in Wonder Woman: 1984 (2020). Unfortunately for all three, Thurber’s script is a woefully underwritten starting point, and his direction is helpless when it comes to shaping his cast and story for the better.
On the subject of casting, there’s also the issue of cast chemistry — and in this case the issue is that there is none. It’s almost surprising how poorly the never-ending banter between Reynolds and Johnson lands, and the less said about a supposed romantic relationship the better as the two performers in question seem about as interested in each other as Elon Musk is in paying taxes. Attempts to humanize characters by saddling them with empty pity parties about daddy issues just sinks things further. The film is a charisma vacuum with only Ritu Arya scraping by as the dogged Interpol agent on their tail.
It doesn’t help that large chunks of Red Notice are not just filmed against digital mattes — but that those CG backgrounds are so damn obvious. Marvel and other fantastical franchises have made them somewhat ubiquitous, but one of the supposed charms of a globe-hopping heist movie is the feeling that viewers are actually traveling the globe. We never get those exotic feels here, and instead it’s easy to believe most of the movie was shot in Los Angeles warehouses. The film wants to seem big, but it can’t help feeling small and artificial, and it leaves both dialogue scenes and action beats alike muted and unengaging.
Regarding those action beats, brief bits of parkour and harmless gun fights — harmless in that the film ensures we know that every character escapes alive — are the standbys. Most sequences, possibly all of them, get CG assists with an Indiana Jones-inspired mine chase suffering the worst as it feels artificial and static in its entirety. The attempt to fool our eyes into “seeing” movement fails miserably adding to the realization that Red Notice is a slog in action/comedy/caper clothing.
Anyway. Say what you will about Red Notice — a chemistry-free, egocentric, poorly written, cartoonishly dull, CG backdrop-filled flick — but it’s currently on Netflix.