Hollywood moviemaking has been a cynical affair pretty much since its inception. After all, Hollywood exists in part because studio heads wanted to avoid legal battles with Thomas Edison on the East coast, and back then sheer geography was enough to do the trick. I don’t necessarily mind that Red Notice is cynical. I mind that there’s really nowhere to hide its cynicism. Studios have always made bad movies coasting on thin premises and charismatic actors, but counterintuitively, they could sometimes hide behind the spectacle of the big screen. When you can get lost in the theatrical experience, it’s harder to find plot holes, lazy writing, and bland performances. But on Netflix, Red Noticehas nowhere to hide, and you can see that this is not a movie meant to be watched. It’s not meant for you to sit down and enjoy what you’re watching because you like these actors, and you want to see them on a globe-trotting caper. Red Notice is meant to be played. You press “play” and then you goof around on your phone or fold laundry because Red Notice was designed for your consumption, not your attention because the second you pay it any mind, you see that’s it just the hollow version of something that was actually worth your emotional engagement.
John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) is an FBI profiler with a background in art and antiquities who is way out of his jurisdiction and his casting because nothing in this movie matters. Dwayne Johnson wanted the role, so he gets the role because that’s how movies are made. Hartley teams up with INTERPOL to track down the world’s second-best art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), who is tracking down Cleopatra’s Eggs, three “priceless” antiquities that a buyer in Egypt will pay $1 billion for if he gets the whole set (so I guess they do have a price). Harltey catches Booth only to then be framed as an accomplice by the world’s best art thief, The Bishop (Gal Gadot), who also wants the Eggs and needs Hartley and Booth out of the way. Thus, the mismatched pair of Hartley and Booth have no choice but to beat The Bishop to the Eggs so that Hartley can clear his name and Booth can get his payday.
The only good thing about Red Notice is putting Johnson and Reynolds together. We got a glimpse of that in Hobbes and Shaw, but they really do make for a perfect pair with Johnson as the straight man to Reynolds’ wisecracking foil. This dynamic certainly isn’t new to Johnson (The Rundown) or Reynolds (The Hitman’s Bodyguard), but they do well together here, and you wish that the surrounding movie was so much better. Instead, both actors oddly seem smaller than their A-list pedigree would suggest. That’s not to say that a Dwayne Johnson movie or a Ryan Reynolds movie can’t play on your TV, but in the hands of writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber, both actors seem to be straining against the material, which acts like a black hole for their charisma. Johnson’s machismo and Reynolds’ jokes all feel just a little more forced because Red Notice’s construction is so thin and obvious.
Thurber has made an expensive movie, but everything about its conception and execution feels cheap and lackluster. There’s not an ounce of creativity here because both the algorithm and Netflix executives appear to abhor anything that can’t be quantified. That’s how you get a movie where there’s a prison break and a heist and then just going full Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film’s construction isn’t based on what’s best for the characters or the story but what simply moves you between things you liked in previous works. Again, that is not new to Hollywood blockbusters, but it’s rare to see the strings so clearly. Red Notice feels like it didn’t have a script as much as it has a spreadsheet, and what it needs to do is make sure certain quantities are fulfilled as you watch Netflix and Netflix watches you back to mine whatever data it can from your viewing habits so it can make more movies like Red Notice.
And look, that has been a successful business model for Netfllx, and to be fair, they’re also the studio just throwing money at folks like Scorsese, Fincher, Cuaron, and others to do whatever they want. But when it comes to movies made in a blockbuster mold, Netflix is at a loss because blockbusters aren’t just movie star + action scenes. There are countless VOD movies that do that, and simply having more money to throw at the problem doesn’t solve it. Netflix has spent big on movies like Bright and 6 Underground and now Red Notice, and they’re awful. And yet once you press “play”, you’re already in your house and it’s not like you have anything better to do, so here are stars you’ve enjoyed more in other movies bantering with each other while the occasional explosion happens.
Of course, Netflix doesn’t have to be in the blockbuster game, and for the most part, they’re not. They fund all kinds of movies and blockbusters happen to be one of them, but Red Notice shows the studio clearly hasn’t cracked it yet, and until they decide that these are movies to be watched—films that demand engagement, interest, and do something worthwhile—they’re going to come up with films like this that simply do not matter. If I wanted to watch a great prison break movie, why wouldn’t I watch The Great Escape? If I wanted to watch a great caper, why wouldn’t I watch Ocean’s Eleven? If I wanted to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, why wouldn’t I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark? Red Notice is the KFC Famous Bowls of Cinema, lumping together a bunch of stuff you ostensibly enjoy into a wet pile of slop and telling you to dig in.
Red Notice arrives on Netflix on Friday, November 12th.
KEEP READING: First ‘Red Notice’ Clip Has Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot, and Ryan Reynolds Going Toe-to-Toe-to-Toe