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Kevin Hart, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Úrsula Corberó look worried in a fake plane cockpit in Lift Image: Netflix

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Kevin Hart doesn’t even get to be Kevin Hart in Netflix’s new Kevin Hart movie

The dismal heist caper Lift sinks like a stone

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Lift, the new Netflix action caper starring Kevin Hart, is a roguish, high-tech heist movie about an unlikely band of desperadoes using their thieving skills to save the world. Its makers, led by director F. Gary Gray and Hart as a producer, are clearly trying to triangulate a spot somewhere between the Ocean’s movies, the Fast and Furious franchise, and Mission: Impossible. It’s tempting to say it gets about as close to those as a Hallmark movie does to a classic Meg Ryan romantic comedy, but that would be unfair to Hallmark movies. Hallmark movies have their own vibe, a soothing blandness that’s at least partially the point. Lift, like so much of Netflix’s action output, is a characterless, garish simulacrum that isn’t satisfying on any level.

It isn’t fooling anyone, however. You only need to see a single frame of Lift, taken past the 10-minute mark, to know something’s wrong. During those first 10 minutes, we’re introduced to Cyrus Whitaker (Hart) and his crew of international art thieves: master of disguise Denton (Vincent D’Onofrio), pilot Camilla (Úrsula Corberó), safecracker Magnus (Billy Magnussen), engineer Luc (Viveik Kalra), and hacker Mi-Sun (Yun Jee Kim). We watch them undertake a daring art heist at a simultaneous auction in Venice and London, right under the nose of Interpol agent Abby Gladwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The heist is passably entertaining and there’s an actual speedboat chase, filmed on location in Venice.

Then, abruptly, the film lurches into a tacky unreality it inhabits for the rest of its 104-minute run time. The crew make their escape and arrive on a super-yacht that’s poorly rendered CGI without, and brightly lit soundstage within. There, they sit around and explain how they pulled off the world’s first theft of priceless NFT art, an already unfashionable concept which precisely carbon-dates Daniel Kunka’s screenplay to 2020-2021. The rest of the movie is shot almost entirely on soundstages, and has the flat lighting, glassy photography, and flimsy FX that are the sad trademarks of most Netflix Original movies. Nothing about it looks real.

The cast of Lift, including Kevin Hart and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, stand around in a hangar with a fake CGI plane behind them Photo: Matt Towers/Netflix

That’s a bad start for a supposedly globe-trotting adventure. The action moves to fake London: Mbatha-Raw’s Abby manages to pin the Venice heist on Denton, which she then uses to blackmail Cyrus’ crew into pulling a job for the good guys, at the behest of anti-terror agent Huxley (Sam Worthington). They need to find a way to steal half a billion dollars of gold belonging to billionaire baddy Lars Jorgensen (Jean Reno) to stop him from funding a global terror campaign that he will use to short the markets.

Cyrus concludes that the only way to do this is while the gold is being transported (by passenger aircraft, for some reason) between London and Zurich — in midair, using a customized second aircraft to fly right under the airliner, “steal” its radar signature, and fool air traffic control. Naturally, Abby and Cyrus have a romantic history, and naturally, he persuades her to join the team.

That’s a ludicrous setup, but it has some fun potential: Cinema has a proud history of fun stunts featuring planes flying close to each other, in such twisty and purposeful action potboilers as 1996’s Executive Decision. Lift looks cheap, has perfunctory characterization, and is feeble in its attempts at humor — but if it at least pulled off a cleverly conceived heist, it would still get its job done.

Instead, it fails at that, too. It’s almost impressive how many of the set-piece’s threads fizzle out and lead nowhere, and how many opportunities for action and tension are bungled or allowed to slip by. Multiple members of Cyrus’ team have barely anything to do, stranded by the fuzzy mechanics of the plot and the half-assed characterization. A last-minute twist can’t save the hopeless anticlimax that preceded it. Lift looks and sounds like a heist film (sort of), but Kunka and Gray haven’t done the work to build one.

The cast of Lift stand next to a shiny fake plane in a fake hangar Image: Netflix

Even more baffling is the miscasting. This is a Kevin Hart movie where Kevin Hart doesn’t even get to be Kevin Hart — by design, presumably, given his producer credit. Cyrus doesn’t crack wise or work up any high-key comic bluster. Hart is going for a charismatic cool-customer thing, an unflappable team leader like a Danny Ocean or an infinitely more laid-back Ethan Hunt. It’s a disastrously bad fit for his energy, and he just flatlines, leaving a game Mbatha-Raw mugging into a vacuum to compensate.

Magnussen works hard to land a few laughs; I’m not sure what D’Onofrio thought he was doing, but he seems to find it amusing, which is something, I guess. Everyone else looks lost, especially Worthington and Reno in the roles of plot mechanics with inappropriate accents. They seem to give up in bored desperation halfway through most of their lines, and who can blame them?

Gray is capable of better than this. His 2003 remake of The Italian Job passed muster, his NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was persuasive, and The Fate of the Furious isn’t the absolute worst Fast movie. Even his last flop, Men in Black: International, showed more signs of life and originality than Lift. But those were all real movies, even if they weren’t great ones. Lift is barely a movie at all. It’s an empty, glossy stand-in for one. It’s the sparkly decoy the thieves swap for the real thing while no one is looking.

Lift is streaming on Netflix now.