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Netflix’s Red Notice is as bad as blockbuster movies can possibly get

The film’s star-studded franchise-starter is cheap and clumsy, but worse — it’s boring

Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds facing off in fancy dress in Red Notice Photo: Frank Masi/Netflix

This review of Red Notice originally ran in conjunction with the film’s theatrical release date. It has been updated and republished for the movie’s Nov. 12 Netflix streaming debut.

Early in Netflix’s attempted heist blockbuster Red Notice, FBI agent Johnson Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) tracks wisecracking thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds) to the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Booth plans to swipe an 18-karat Egyptian egg, but the priceless artifact has already been stolen. Hartley proves it by pouring a can of Coke over the counterfeit egg on display. The lacquer of fake gold dissolves under the corrosive liquid, and the egg melts into rusted trash.

No scene in this lumbering action movie better exemplifies how hollow writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Netflix film is. Featuring a trio of supposed movie stars who lack the panache or charisma of true marquee headliners, Red Notice is another visually ghastly bid at building a franchise on the back of action sequences that commit a cardinal sin for blockbuster thrillers. The sequences here that are supposed to carry the excitement aren’t just oddly cheap and ugly, they’re breathtakingly boring.

Like the National Treasure or Indiana Jones movies, Red Notice is propelled by the mythology of ancient artifacts and the greed they attract. According to this movie’s lore, more than 2,000 years ago, Roman general Mark Antony gifted his love, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, with three golden eggs. After their joint death by suicide, the three tokens were scattered. One settled in the Museo Nazionale. Another is with a private collector. The third has been lost for centuries. An Egyptian billionaire wants to reunite the eggs for his daughter’s wedding, and is willing to pay big money to bring them together. Hartley very nearly foils the plot, until he’s framed as a thief by a mysterious criminal named The Bishop (Gal Gadot). He needs to find the three eggs and arrest Booth and Bishop if he wants to clear his name.

Gal Gadot holds Ryan Reynolds at gunpoint while Dwayne Johnson tries to get him to surrender a golden egg in Red Notice Photo: Netflix

While Red Notice is meant to provide origin stories for these characters, their backgrounds are lackluster. Hartley and Booth turn out to have similarly tragic childhoods, stemming from terrible dads. But their long-winded summaries of their lives are so banal, they don’t supply any emotional branches for the audience to latch on to. Nor are they funny. The unlikely pair wind up tethered by a common cause, but Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones they are not. As they confront the ruthless Bishop, who is maneuvering against them as a poorly rendered copy of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, their improbable partnership grates under a script filled with dreadful dialogue. (This is another film that uses the “We’re opposites, but we’re actually not all that different” trope.)

Thurber’s script cribs from a compendium of cinematic references to assemble the movie’s events. Everything about their meetings and interactions with Bishop, while avoiding a pursuing Interpol agent, Inspector Das (Ritu Arya), comes from a familiar visual language. A masquerade party finds Hartley and Bishop engaging in a tête-à-tête on the dance floor. Their bodies wrapped around each other, in the seductive motions of the tango, is meant to evoke the sensual power dynamics at the heart of True Lies. Between the Rock’s stiff muscular frame and Gadot’s stiffer face, it’s rendered as an asexual shadow of that film. Other references include The Third Man, Gladiator, Reservoir Dogs, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and so forth. Some of these odes are winking. Others are blasphemous inclusions in such a cinematically bankrupt film. Every reference only reminds savvy viewers what this movie isn’t.

On a craft level, nothing here has any spark. Cinematographer Markus Förderer (Independence Day: Resurgence) relies on widescreen, an aspect ratio that in theory befits a globetrotting heist flick. But Red Notice’s wide canvas is composed of cheap paint: The constant use of CGI backdrops results in vulgar brown-tinted lighting. The locations — Rome, Russia, London, Egypt, etc — are indistinguishable from each other. The compositions are equally unimaginative, leading to perplexing camera angles and nauseating camera movements during fights. The widescreen format is a tease that never translates to a bigger punch of action.

With Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds in the fold, along with Thurber’s comedy background — he directed Dodgeball and We’re the MillersRed Notice’s comedic verve should be in the bag. But Reynolds falls into a familiar sarcastic persona, and Johnson and Gadot are poor partners for his improvisational antics. They just aren’t funny. Johnson can’t ping-pong Reynolds’ strained references to Instagram, iPhones, or deepfakes back to him. Gadot has zero comic timing. The height of Red Notice’s comedy is Johnson being rammed by a CGI bull in the middle of a coliseum, only because, by that point, we side with the bull.

Gal Gadot, in a black fur hat, black jacket, and knee-high black boots, smirks and rests her feet on a desk in Red Notice Photo: Frank Masi/Netflix

Neither the film, the script, nor the actors provide any reason to care about these characters or this plot. What does it matter if they attain all three eggs? The world isn’t on the verge of ending. No governments are being harmed. No one’s life is in danger. Instead, this film is merely an incoherent preamble, a jalopy star vehicle where quality is secondary to producing a franchise launching pad. The film eventually winds toward a legend involving Hitler’s art dealer, with a dreadfully shot car chase set underground, caked in hideous visual effects. The grand finale is so unlikely that the incomprehensible screenwriting logic necessary to sell it provides a coma-inducing whiplash.

Thurber wants to bank on the sex appeal of Red Notice’s central trio, but putting such uninteresting actors at the center of the story is a huge turnoff. The film is meant to look and feel immense, but Steve Jablonsky’s cheap score and the film’s over-reliance on visual effects makes the entire project look oh-so-tiny. The recent Army of Thieves and Red Notice both raise the question of whether the executives greenlighting these movies at Netflix have any idea what makes for engaging tentpole cinema, or what it takes to craft stories that stick in viewers’ hearts so they return again and again, no matter what iteration a story takes. What Red Notice does prove is that the streamer is very good at spending lots of money on fool’s gold, only for the short-term shine to flake away when each new project finally goes on display.

Red Notice debuted in theatrical release on Nov. 5, and is now streaming on Netflix.