For such a large buddy chase flick about elite, high-tech art thieves, Red Notice is surprisingly short on anything dazzling. The budget is sort of on the screen, which is notable given this movie’s superhero-movie-sized budget (reportedly the largest in Netflix’s history). We get pricey cars, fancy clothes, lavish sets, and action scenes that are filled with countless VFX man-hours, not to mention a trio of bankable stars. Originally this all wasn’t going to be coming from a Netflix check, but that of Universal Pictures, as they originally greenlit the project in 2018, presumably on the strength of Dwayne Johnson’s attachment and presumably on some hint of a premise. But a year later, before production began, the studio balked for widely speculated-about reasons: Maybe they finally took a look at writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s script, or maybe they were scared off by the box office disappointment of Skyscraper, the previous Thurber-Johnson joint. Whatever the cause, Netflix picked up the film for more than $160 million. But, as we see, there are certain things that money can’t buy. As it turns out, coherence and an infectious sense of energy are a couple of them.
Johnson stars as John Hartley, an FBI profiler who’s set his sights on Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), one of the world’s most wanted and obnoxiously deadpan art thieves. Soon they’re embroiled in a scheme centered on three bejeweled eggs once owned by Cleopatra, all of them now kept under lock and key in far-flung corners of the globe. Just from that premise, it makes hard not to imagine how a little goofiness and tour-guide geekery could spruce up Red Notice into a kind of art-world National Treasure. But that art-world angle doesn’t last so long, as the action leaps from a museum in Rome to a getaway in Bali to a prison in icy Russia, which is where the no-nonsense agent and the wily thief go from reluctant cellmates to reluctant partners.
Forcing their hand with a mischievous wink is Booth’s archrival in crime, the Bishop (Gal Gadot), who has an annoying talent for playing Booth and Hartley off each other while remaining several steps ahead. This forced triangulation adds a whole lot of lopsided banter, with Reynolds predictably dominating the wisecracks while his co-stars have the general good sense not to even try keeping up. The miscast Gadot finds herself at a particular disadvantage. Whether she’s mocking a tied-up intelligence analyst or electrocuting Johnson’s nether-regions, she confirms — as her earnest Wonder Woman performances already suggested — that winking cynicism isn’t her strong suit. Johnson fares somewhat better. In a similar vein to one of Thurber and Johnson’s previous collaboration, Central Intelligence, the latter finds himself cast as the bigger, buffer side in a rambunctious action-comedy bromance. And Johnson and Reynolds aren’t the worst action duo, but their odd-couple bit is thin and predictable when compared to Johnson and Kevin Hart’s duo. Reynolds basically sits there shooting off his mouth, rattling off up-to-the-minute cultural references, while Johnson responds with mostly stony silence.
In between all their bog-standard banter, one can hear the creaks of lousy modern screenwriting; all three characters, for instance, get monologues about their respective daddy issues. The action set pieces even feel like they were selected at random and dropped into the script. There’s a bullfight, a prison break, a long tunnel chase with a bulletproof vintage Mercedes. Thurber has admittedly improved as an action director when compared to his last movie, Skyscraper: His camerawork has become less awkward, and there’s even a decent foot chase in the opening sequence. But the scale and timing of Spielbergian spectacle continues to elude him; the larger action scenes feel like frictionless digital imitations of the real thing. Whistling the Indiana Jones theme (as Reynolds does at one point) does not provoke a flattering comparison.
But at least we have Reynolds, who largely seems to be here just to mock and deconstruct the plot, while Johnson and Gadot are on hand to earnestly recap it. And some recapping is admittedly helpful, given how busily Thurber piles on the narrative fake-outs and tedious side characters, including an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya) and a shirtless arms dealer (Chris Diamantopoulos) — all en route to an ending so inane that the characters seem faintly embarrassed to have to go along with it. It all serves as a sad reminder of what big Hollywood considers “original” material these days, as Red Notice plays one of those self-consciously convoluted, ultimately derivative long cons that strain so hard to seem breezy that it’s ultimately more exhausting. Thin and borderline algorithmic, Red Notice is a slog of deflatingly ineffectual banter and innocuous action; a glossily empty product that fades into the ether.
Red Notice is available to stream on Netflix