Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Before the franchise era of the industry, films were predominantly sold to audiences based on which big name stars were attached. Granted, ‘star-vehicles’ still happen today, but they don’t seem to have the same kind of pull as they once did. Audiences would go to this or that film, knowing exactly what they were in for based on who the headliner was. You’d be in for a hardcore action film if it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you’d be in for a romantic comedy if it starred Meg Ryan. The actor’s persona would inform the genre, characters, plot, and story. This is a cinematic marketing tactic which barely works anymore, so it’s fascinating that Netflix’s latest (and biggest) film, Red Notice (2021), wanted to bring back this format.
As the film opens, we are told of the (fictional) three jewelled eggs of Cleopatra, a treasure that many archaeologists and art dealers have been after for two thousand years. With two eggs accounted for, a global search for the lost third egg has yielded no results, prompting many art thieves to search for it. One of those thieves is Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), a smarmy con man who is as reckless as he is brilliant. Hot on his trail is FBI agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), who will seemingly stop at nothing to get his man. While in pursuit of Booth, Hartley is framed by The Bishop (Gal Gadot), a world famous art thief who constantly beats Booth to the punch. In order to clear his name, Hartley needs to team with Booth to combat The Bishop.
There’s been a lot of discussion around this film’s perceived originality, as well as its unusually high budget. In this day and age, the chances of an original concept being given $200 million to play with is unheard of, so it’s no wonder that Netflix and the film press have made a stir over Red Notice. That being said, if this is what currently passes for originality, creative standards are seriously dropping. While it’s true that the characters, plot and script aren’t based on any pre-existing material, the amount of worn out tropes the script uses is seemingly never ending. At nearly every turn, you know exactly what is going to happen in the exact order it’s going to happen. One could argue that it pays loving homage to things like Ocean’s 11 (2001) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), but none of it comes across as inspiration. Instead, it reads as stolen ideas at best and complete lack of effort at worst.
With that in mind, the plot itself is somehow convoluted and disengaging at the same time. When dealing with conmen, thieves and masterminds, there’s definitely going to be a healthy amount of twists, reveals and ‘gotcha’ moments. While a handful of these instances elicit playful chuckles from the viewer, many of them fall flat due to a lack of build up. There’s the illusion of set-up and pay-off, but Red Notice falls into the most frustrating of traps, revealing things in flashback that we couldn’t possibly have spotted at the time. Additionally, the endless banter diffuses any and all stakes, making it very hard to actually feel the necessary thrills. Sure, Red Notice isn’t really aiming to be taken seriously, but the irreverence rarely lands and veers into unintentional cringe one too many times.
This extends to the performances of the core cast, who sadly bare the brunt of the film’s failings. Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson and Gal Gadot are three of the most charming and likeable actors working today, but Red Notice puts them in arguably the worst possible light. Deadpool (2016) catapulted Reynolds’ motormouth character-type into mainstream popularity, but Red Notice’s script fails to deliver the warmth that made Deadpool (and his other recent performances) work. Gadot is misused as The Bishop, as she is expected to shake her otherworldly charisma in favour of a cheeky femme fatale (an affect that she unfortunately struggles to perfect). Johnson probably comes off the worst, as the character of John Hartley feels copied and pasted from other baseline Johnson performances.
To be clear, these talented actors could have succeeded in their roles with stronger direction, which is also lacking in every other element. Rawson Marshall Thurber has done great and enjoyable work in the past, injecting filmmaking intelligence into purposefully ridiculous content. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Red Notice, as the editing, camerawork and visual effects fail to bring the best out of the narrative. It’s a shame to say that Red Notice feels cheap, which is definitely not what you want when the story is a globetrotting adventure for untold riches. By comparison, it’s incredible to think that Thurber’s much smaller, much sillier film, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2005), feels far more polished with a far more expansive world.
Credit where credit is due, Red Notice does have a handful of fun action beats. Most of the best sequences occur in the first half when things are a little more grounded and therefore need to be a little more creative. The audience will definitely find enjoyment out of seeing how the principle stars use their environment to one-up each other, but things sadly become rote and uninteresting once traditional action movie elements like guns, explosions and car chases enter the mix. At the moment where the tension should be highest, we enter a computer generated nightmare that makes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) seem artistic by comparison. With a budget that matches the larger Marvel films, it shouldn’t be too much to hope that the action brings out a modicum of excitement.
Laying this much criticism on an original film made by so many talented people isn’t fun for anybody, but it’s important to do so in order to prompt some kind of improvement. Netflix should definitely continue to place their bets on new ideas, but those new ideas should come from an inspired place and avoid feeling like complete non-events. Red Notice may have succeeded as far as viewership is concerned, but it’s not exactly setting the bar very high for future ventures.
Best way to watch it: You could always check out Squid Game (2021) instead.