For over a century now, the wheel of Hollywood has been continuously cranked by charisma. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, audiences lined up to watch Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, who could dazzle with even the most drab material. More recently, actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence brought masses to the theaters with the snap of their fingers. So what happens, then, when Hollywood’s marquee trio has the combined charisma of a wet paper towel?
This question is inadvertently posed by Red Notice, Netflix’s latest blockbuster, which is ripe with CGI and plays like it was written by one of those AI-trained bots—with this particular one having been fed hundreds of hours of soulless, money-wasting heist flicks. The film follows FBI criminal profiler John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson), as he attempts to catch one of the world’s leading art thieves, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), who is on a mission to steal Cleopatra’s mythic sparkling eggs. But the two get outsmarted by femme fatale art thief The Bishop (Gal Gadot) and end up in prison while she attempts to snag the eggs for herself. Where does that leave the duo? They’ve got to break out of prison and take the relics for themselves, of course.
Red Notice is framed as a mash-up homage to beloved capers and spy films—National Treasure and the films of James Bond and Indiana Jones. Of course, a large part of what’s so special about the aforementioned films is the sheer force of their collective star power. The iconic, smooth-talking, tux-wearing James Bond, for example, demands an almost aggressive charisma (try to take your eyes off of Sean Connery for more than two seconds, I dare you) as do his so-called Bond girls (Eva Green, I’m looking at you). The same is true for the rugged, adventurous Indiana Jones and even National Treasure’s Declaration-of-Independence-wielding Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage). That new blockbusters need to comprise star-power that will do enough heavy lifting to make up for cliched dialogue and derivative storylines is a pretty well-known fact. Unfortunately, Red Notice writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn’t get the memo.
When the three leads are together, one can’t help but wonder if they’ve ever been in the same room. In fact, their intense lack of chemistry makes me suspect that their scenes are actually a composite of three people acting in different studios. Gadot’s glaring lack of comedic timing clashes with Reynolds’ expertise in that area, and Johnson and Reynolds seem only minimally invested in one another, which makes the film’s quasi-buddy-cop undertone a hard sell. All three act like they’re in their own movie—whether it’s Deadpool or Wonder Woman or Furious 7—and none seem to have gotten the memo that no one else is in that movie with them.
But this lack of magnetism doesn’t just result in boredom on the audience’s part. No, the larger issue here is that the characters seem bored with the film. Johnson, Reynolds and Gadot aren’t usually without charisma—in fact, in some of their other movies, they are impossible to look away from. Perhaps what’s most impressive about Red Notice, then, is the fact that Thurber somehow manages to transform these beloved stars into charisma vacuums by turning them into perfunctory setpieces, just like the film’s implausible Nazi bunker or, God forbid, its CGI bull.
Unsurprisingly, Reynolds’ character is a fast-talking, quippy, obnoxious crook. He often comes close to breaking the fourth wall, making clever comments about existing within a pastiche (at one point he suggests they keep an eye out for a box labeled “MacGuffin”) and is about half a facial expression away from cringing while doing so. Johnson also seems exhausted by the fact that he’s playing the same character he’s been for decades, and Gadot’s performance is awkward and stilted, as if she’s hyper-aware that her character is nothing more than a played-out, vaguely sexist trope. To his credit, it seems that Thurber is at least semi-interested in fleshing out his characters by giving them an emotional edge. Both John and Nolan end up having daddy issues, but that storyline is about as moving as an insurance commercial.
But if we were to give these actors the benefit of the doubt and say, for argument’s sake, that they found their characters to be well-rounded, or at least had a good time playing them, then perhaps their perceived boredom comes instead from the film’s lifeless plot. Yes, the protagonists absolutely have to break out of prison and steal these eggs. That much is clear. But… why? Bond races against the clock to stop various terrorist attacks. Indiana Jones is trying to stop literal Nazis from becoming super-humans. And even in National Treasure, the treasure our crew is seeking is the most valuable treasure in the history of treasure. But in Red Notice, no one else really seems to be particularly interested in the eggs, and if the trio end up getting the eggs the world will be no better or worse for it; the action sequences are reminiscent of videogames where the player is essentially indestructible, so there is never a moment where the trio even come close to being harmed; and there is no clear villain, except for the vague idea of the FBI…maybe? By alluding to these other capers through the film’s location-heavy, globe-trotting structure, unexpected Nazi subplot and the search for invaluable jewels, the film only draws attention to how much glaringly worse it is than them. What wants to be a James-Bond-derivative blockbuster ends up being more like The Hitman’s Bodyguard, an unintentional pastiche with somehow even lower stakes. Yes, it’s possible.
All of that aside, Red Notice doesn’t even bother looking good. Computer-generated imagery is abundant and looks unabashedly fake, which not only makes for flat, stale images, but also which makes one wonder what the studio spent that $200M budget on. The film hops from beautiful location to beautiful location—a masquerade ball in Valencia, a jungle in Argentina, a wedding in Cairo, a cruise off the Cayman Islands—and yet everything looks impossibly sterile and uninspiring, donning a uniform, distinct color palette that looks like someone vomited baked beans all over the most beautiful cities in the world.
What’s more, Thurber makes the effort to shoot the film in widescreen, which implies that the action will stretch from corner to corner, and setpieces will be large and magnificent. It doesn’t. They aren’t. Instead, everything stays within the lines, movements are sluggish and no genre expectations are subverted. What’s more concerning than any of this, though, is that the powers that be at Netflix put their heads together—using their advanced algorithms and personal data—and came to the conclusion that this is what will pull the masses in: A lifeless, impersonal movie with three great stars at their most lifeless and impersonal, is ultimately what will resonate with society the most. Yes, this is worth the streamer’s biggest budget to date. And that’s a scary, scary thought.
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Writer: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Ritu Arya, Chris Diamantopoulos
Release Date: November 5, 2021 (theaters); November 12, 2021 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.