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‘Red Notice’ Review: Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, and Gal Gadot Star in Netflix’s Breezy Mega-Budget Caper

Netflix's biggest and most desperate bid to start its own blockbuster movie franchise is a breezy, globetrotting adventure that's more fun than it should be.

Red Notice

“Red Notice”

Netflix

Historically speaking, “Red Notice” should be unwatchable. For starters, Netflix’s previous fall blockbusters (e.g. “Bright,” “6 Underground”) have been very bad. Not just bad in the way that movies are bad, but bad in the way that war crimes are bad — they shouldn’t have been reviewed by critics so much as tried at the Hague. These are films so bad that Joe Rogan should have spent an episode of his podcast spreading batshit conspiracy theories about how they escaped from the Netflix content labs. These are films so bad that you half expect to see Forrest Gump stumbling through their crowd shots as part of his accidental journey through America’s defining crises.

But at least they were directed by people with strong artistic sensibilities. “Red Notice,” on the other hand, is the brainchild of Rawson Marshall Thurber, a once-promising comedy director (“DodgeBall,” “We’re the Millers”) who was more fun to resent for his what if Colin Jost and Henry Cavill went into that machine from “The Fly” together good looks than for his role in enabling Dwayne Johnson’s quixotic quest to simultaneously become the most charismatic and least interesting movie star of all time. Thurber may not be quite as complicit as “San Andreas” and “Rampage” auteur Brad Peyton, but “Central Intelligence” and “Skyscraper” are both summer blockbusters so bland they helped to deflate the entire tradition of such tentpoles. Whatever points they scored for “originality” were negated by their perverse determination to seem mass-produced.

That Thurber and Johnson’s latest collaboration is reportedly the most expensive movie Netflix has ever made would be reason enough to assume that “Red Notice” is just another high-concept spectacle in which the bravery of Johnson’s character is betrayed by the actor-producer’s life-threatening allergy to creative risk. Add Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot into the mix — two other A-list stars whose sense of range seems to end with their costumes — and you have such a perfect storm of modern Hollywood mediocrity that people might start hoarding toilet paper and canned goods before it reaches land.

Alas, you already know where this is going: Call it an early Hanukkah miracle (as one drop of inspiration somehow manages to power this movie for almost two full hours), but “Red Notice” is a lot of fun, if often in spite of itself. While in essence still the kind of flavorless slop that a peevish critic might have expected Netflix to produce from these ingredients, this globe-hopping tale of cops and robbers on the hunt for Nazi gold is glazed with enough panache, humor, and franchise-thirsty ambition to feel like it isn’t taking the audience for granted.

There’s precious little in “Red Notice” that people haven’t seen Johnson do before (with the possible exception of the part when his character name-checks 19th-century Scottish artist William Strang), but at least his latest attempt at a swashbuckling throwback is liberated from the sort of waterlogged mythology that sank Disney’s “Jungle Cruise.” Enjoyably cartoonish set pieces keep the movie light on its feet, a carousel of exotic locations make sure you never have to think about the MacGuffin, and Reynolds — in a rare display of discretion — only calls his co-star “baldilocks” once. In 2021, that counts as some kind of win.

At its best, “Red Notice” feels like a glam and glossy live-action riff on “Lupin the Third,” with a little “Uncharted” mixed in for good measure before the movie takes a late swerve into another genre altogether. Reynolds is Nolan Booth, the world’s greatest art thief and a general cad. Johnson is John Hartley, the boulder-sized FBI profiler who’s been tracking Booth around the world, and seems hellbent on stopping him from stealing all three of Cleopatra’s jewel-encrusted eggs (priceless treasures that an Egyptian billionaire hopes to give his daughter as a wedding present).

Gadot is the wild card between these two silly boys, playing the only person on the planet capable of beating Nolan at his own game; she’s known only as “The Bishop,” though it’s unclear why she chose that title, or what pieces the other characters might represent on her chess board. Unsurprisingly, the actress’ most important function in the movie is to wear slinky dresses for Reynolds and Johnson to drool on. The red number she wears to the villain’s “Eyes Wide Shut”-like masquerade party stands out for compelling a hyper-masculine Dwayne Johnson character to admit that sex exists and is something he might be interested in having one day. Needless to say, hearts will be stolen before everyone in this bizarre love triangle reveals their angle.

And it isn’t long before things go screwy and people begin to switch sides, as Inspector Urvashi Das (Ritu Arya) races to the conclusion that Hartley — her partner! — is actually behind the heist that unfolds during the opening sequence, a high-energy set piece that starts with one of the three Cleopatra eggs being nicked from a Rome museum in plain sight. Cut to: Hartley and Nolan bunking together in a black site prison that’s perched so high atop a snowy Russian peak that not even eagles would dare to break them free. The Bishop has one of the eggs, a Napoleonic arms dealer named Sotto Voce (Chris Diamantopoulos) has another, Nolan is the only person alive who knows where the third one might be, and the magnate willing to pay $300 million if someone brings him the ancient treasures by the night of his daughter’s nuptials won’t fork over a penny for anything short of a full set.

And so begins a wild goose chase that stretches from a Siberian gulag to a South American Nazi bunker and all points in between as friends become enemies, enemies become friends, everyone airs their daddy issues, and nobody actually gets hurt (including the various henchmen our heroes meet along the way). Nobody actually leaves Atlanta, either, as the pandemic cramped Thurber’s plans for an international shoot, and forced his team to fake a series of far-flung locations in a way that more closely reflects the Marvel approach to moviemaking than it does the old school adventures that “Red Notice” hopes to exhume.

Not unlike the hologram tech that Nolan uses to swipe priceless artifacts from museum showrooms, the illusion holds for just long enough to get the job done. That the Russian jail is such a ridiculous place helps to launder its non-reality, and Thurber grounds Hartley and Nolan’s big escape from it in bite-sized human details so that the more heightened beats to come feel like they stem from the same comic tone; the sight gag of a prison guard using a shirtless photo of Putin as his iPhone background helps butter you up to believe the huge stunt that follows a few minutes later, when Hartley turns a helicopter just in time for a rocket to pass through both of its open doors. Of course, that particular joke is an outlier in a politically and emotionally anodyne movie that keeps with Johnson’s soul-deadening refusal to spend his star capital on anything that might someday cost him a vote.

The first hour of “Red Notice” does such a fine job of threading the needle between hard-boiled action and comic absurdity that its ends justify their means and the film’s cast is free to lean on their respective brands as a crutch. Does it make sense that Nolan is a clumsy buffoon one minute, and the most gifted prop fighter since Jackie Chan the next? Absolutely not, but it’s fun to watch Reynolds use scaffolding to politely incapacitate some featured extras while Markus Förderer’s gravity-defying camera zooms around the well-choreographed chaos like a drunken mosquito. It’s also telling that Reynolds’ best moments are blocked, and not improvised; his quips are a bit sharper than usual (save for the occasional “dipdick” and other such dumbass retorts that sneak through just often enough to remind you to be grateful that it doesn’t happen more often), but his disaffected schtick is still mighty stale without a “Free Guy”-level concept to keep it fresh.

In fact, Thurber’s film is funniest when it functions as a featherlight commentary on its various screen personas. There’s a cutesy bit at the masquerade ball when Gadot pretends not to recognize all 23 square feet of Dwayne Johnson behind his eye mask, and that same in-on-the-joke energy flows through almost every minute of a breezy lark that offers a few pennies of fun on a $200 million budget… a budget that falls well short of whatever Thurber needed to sell the Atlanta of it all the whole way through, as the third act is such an embarrassing parade of TikTok-level green screen that it seems like the film was shot in sequence and we’re watching it run out of money in real time.

While the movie sometimes hides behind its own derivativeness in lieu of daring to play things straight — the references fly fast and furious long before a punchline is made at Vin Diesel’s expense — “Red Notice” never loses sight of the visual shorthand that comes with bonafide stardom, nor the simple joy of seeing very famous people make total fools of themselves for a laugh. Sometimes we even get to laugh along with them. Empty calories aren’t all created equal, and this is the first thing the Rock has cooked up in a long time that might actually leave you hungry for more.

Grade: C+

“Red Notice” will open in select theaters on Friday, November 5. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 12.

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