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'Red Notice' review: A smug and lifeless star vehicle

Netflix's new film 'Red Notice' may bring together three major stars, but the result is tepid and dull.

Red Notice
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

Three stars and a director who've all made better films make a drab one with 'Red Notice.'

For

  • - Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds have decent chemistry
  • - Whatever else is true, this movie is escapist fare and is not attempting a grander statement
  • - Everyone sure looks pretty

Against

  • - The humor is constantly, aggressively glib without being funny
  • - The various twists and turns aren't nearly as surprising as the film thinks they are
  • - For a purportedly expensive film, this looks very cheap
  • - The setup for a sequel feels like a threat

The new Netflix original film Red Notice has good taste in other films, which unfortunately does not translate to being a good movie itself. One character specifically name-drops Pulp Fiction, the comedies of screwball filmmaker Preston Sturges and Indiana Jones (whistling the John Williams theme and wearing gear that’s deliberately meant to make you think of Harrison Ford’s hero, as a lark). 

It would be charming if Red Notice earned making any of those references or acknowledging any of those films. But while the new Netflix film has a remarkable trio of A-List stars and an easy-enough high-concept setup, the film is immensely, off-puttingly glib and smug. And like so many of Netflix’s original films, this feels like a weirdly off-brand attempt at recreating so many other charming, memorable titles.

Dwayne Johnson is reuniting here with writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed him in Skyscraper. That film asked the question: “What if Die Hard, but with the Rock?” Red Notice asks the question, “What if Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Midnight Run, but with the Rock and also Ryan Reynolds?” Considering how consistently he riffs on 1988 films, one can only imagine what will come next: maybe Working Girl, but with the Rock?

Johnson stars as John Hartley, an FBI profiler who “specializes in art crime,” a truly ridiculous phrase that an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya) inexplicably accepts as logic. Hartley is on the hunt for a fabled Egyptian artifact he believes will be stolen by a world-renowned art thief (Reynolds), but soon he’s being hunted himself after being implicated in the theft by another world-renowned thief (Gal Gadot). 

Primarily, the setup is an excuse for Johnson and Reynolds to do their best attempt at a buddy-comedy duo, with the more taciturn Johnson serving as the foil for the ever-riffing Reynolds (no surprise considering the star's pop-culture referencing alter ego in the Deadpool movies).

What is perhaps most vexing about Red Notice is that both Johnson and Thurber can do better than this, and in fact have done better than this. The first time they worked together as actor and director, it was on the delightfully surprising Central Intelligence, where Johnson first worked with Kevin Hart. Central Intelligence worked for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that Johnson allowed himself to play off his personal image in a clever way. His character there of course looked intimidating and tough, but inside that shell was a goofy teenage nerd. 

Red Notice, for various reasons, is far less forthcoming about the background of John Hartley. But what we see of the character, and what we know of him, is that he’s tough on the inside and the outside. It’s a one-note performance from an actor (serving as producer here too) who is vastly more interesting when he’s being weird. Films like Central Intelligence and even Pain and Gain prove it as well as slow-paced films like this do. 

The globe-trotting nature of Red Notice, which hops from Rome to Bali to Argentina with little care, is all on the surface in every way possible. Netflix made waves when it outbid a lot of other studios on this film and it has since been discussed as perhaps the most expensive film the streaming platform has ever made. That kind of detail is largely superfluous to the discussion of whether or not a film is any good, but it’s worth noting in the case of Red Notice because of how shoddy the production values look. In scenes where Johnson and Reynolds run afoul of a rearing bull in the middle of a bullfight or as they get involved in a prison breakout in the middle of Russia, it’s almost possible to visualize where the green-screen background must begin. For a film that is purportedly quite costly, Red Notice looks the exact opposite.

Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson in 'Red Notice'.

Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson in 'Red Notice' (Image credit: Netflix)

And the production values are only noticeable because what’s going on in front of the green screens is so dull. All three main actors (and for as much as this story hops from one country to another, there’s a strange lack of characters outside of the main trio and two antagonists) have proven in other films that they can be immensely talented and charming. Gadot hasn’t been called on in the past for her comedic chops, but it’s hard to tell if Red Notice simply has material that serves her poorly or if her performance is the problem. Still, she rivals Reynolds for smugness here, as a seemingly crafty thief who keeps getting one over on both a fellow crook and on a Fed. Reynolds feels like he’s on autopilot here, doing the kind of hipper-than-thou, above-it-all faux-comedy of Deadpool, but with no mask on. 

Really, the entirety of Red Notice is on autopilot. A movie this massive, it should come as no surprise, ends with a setup for a sequel. And here it is less like an enticing promise and more like a threat. A movie starring three luminous stars, especially when it’s intended to be fun and escapist fare, ought to be a welcome balm as we approach the awards season. Red Notice could have worked, because every major player has proven their worth in the past. But even though it’s sure to become the latest non-example in Netflix’s array of original titles purportedly hitting remarkable new viewing numbers without any hard statistics being provided, Red Notice is just another example of the streamer producing titles that have the veneer of being bold and original films, without actually being bold, original, or entertaining.

Red Notice is now available to watch on Netflix.