There’s a scene in Red Notice where The Rock, who has often sported the nickname “The Brahma Bull”, is confronted and assaulted by a CGI bull. But instead of this encounter evolving into a fistfight between man and beast, like what the 3rd act of Rampage (2018) should have been, it is instead a one-sided smackdown in favor of the cattle. The scene, a complete diversion that has nothing to do with the plot, perfectly encapsulates how weightless Netflix’s $200 Million blockbuster comes off. Despite A-list stars galore and visually splendid production design, Red Notice seems content to wallow in sitcom-level hijinks rather than inspiring thrilling drama.
The movie begins like an episode of Ancient Aliens… which is because Ancient Aliens Narrator Guy tells us a fictional yarn about 3 golden eggs that were once gifted to Cleopatra, by her lover Mark Antony (this guy gets J Lo AND Cleopatra??!!). In the 20th century, 2 of the eggs were discovered but the 3rd remains missing in present day. Enter Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), the supposed #1 thief in the world, a regular Lupin III who intends to gather all 3 eggs and sell them to an obscenely wealthy man. Which would be a great plan if it weren’t Dwayne Johnson, who plays special agent John Hartley (the best name they could come up with I’m sure, the writers really pulled an all-nighter here). Hartley foils Booth’s plan, but the two men are upstaged by Sarah Black (Gal Gadot), a thief who has her own convoluted scheme to obtain the eggs.
This leads to a globe-trotting adventure that’s heavily inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I would describe it as National Treasure meets Midnight Run, as Nolan and John are forced to be partners in their pursuit to thwart Sarah’s plans. Nolan envisions the two as having a budding friendship, while John is just using Nolan as a means to arrest his target. Here, Ryan Reynolds is at his peak smart-ass, jabbing The Rock with one-liners as John looks genuinely non-plussed to be working with Nolan. One of Reynolds’ best lines comes when he asks the chef if his disgusting prison food was ‘farm-to-table’.
While Reynolds is doing most of the heavy lifting here, Gal Gadot turns in a surprisingly manic performance. She’s not as rigid here as in her Wonder Woman role, a character whose dialogue can too often devolve into syrupy self-help. As Sarah Black, Gadot seems to be letting loose more, cracking one-liners and (poorly) singing Petula Clark’s Downtown. It’s good to know that a more comedic performance is in her toolbox, even if she never goes 100% crazy like the movie teases at various times.
The person who really loses here is The Rock, who turns in a surprisingly lethargic performance. Gone is his charisma, and what’s left is a grump who grimaces through his interactions with Reynolds. If Dwayne’s closest movie star analog is 90s Arnold Schwarzenegger, then he needs to do a big deep dive into those movies to rediscover the charisma, facial expressions, and comedic timing that Schwarzenegger layered his performances with. It’s a big miss from an actor who usually has an outsized screen presence.
As a result of these varying degrees of performance by the 3 leads, their dynamic is a bit unbalanced. If you get The Rock and Ryan Reynolds on screen together, it’s going to be entertaining, but I can’t say it lives up to it’s potential. As a result, what carries the movie is it’s dynamic visual look. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber is a talented action filmmaker, and the movie is often at it’s best when it just goes for visual thrills. There are multiple single-take shots where the camera zips through a city with blistering speeds, and the choreography is often excellent. The best action sequence in the movie is the opening sequence, a parkour-inspired escape that feels not only reminiscent of the outstanding foot-chase in Casino Royale (2006), but left no doubt in my mind that Reynolds did not do all of his stunts.
Red Notice could be described as an Instagram movie, one where good looking A-Listers do exciting things amid the backdrop of exotic locations. The film is like a sitcom in the sense that the movie doesn’t really have conflict, it has situations that happen to the main characters, and then they move on from it like the aforementioned scene involving the bull. Does that make it a great movie – well no, it is mostly fluff that is meant to be watched at home, with friends/family, and it’s ok if it plays in the background while you do something else.
We can look at this cynically, as a sign of how negatively Netflix has impacted movies. I think the biggest issue is the streaming giant seems uninterested in producing great cinema, just movies that make sense for their bottom line. I’d take 10 Red Notices if we were guaranteed a Roma, or hell even an Irishman, every year, but those efforts seem too far apart (also, a movie doesn’t need to be 3 hours to be great). But Red Notice is guaranteed multiple sequels and was an instant smash hit, so expect more wacky adventures in this silly universe. But next time, can we get some stakes and some character development that actually matter? And tell The Rock to smile more, what’s he got to be upset about!