I know there’s been a lot of press lately about how Red Notice has been such a massive win for Netflix, reportedly the biggest debut weekend the streamer has ever seen. Let’s set the record straight.
First of all, this one literally has Dwayne Johnson’s name all over it. He’s the star, he’s the producer, and his Seven Bucks Productions company has its logo right up front before the credits. I might add that the film was written/directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, primarily known as a comedy filmmaker before switching to action with Skyscraper and Central Intelligence, both action vehicles for Johnson. Oh, and we can’t forget the involvement of one Gal Godot, another erstwhile Fast and Furious alum.
(Side note: This movie was sure to take a quick potshot at Vin Diesel in the third act. This after the Johnson-produced Fighting with My Family took a similar swipe at Diesel. More recently, Hiram Garcia — the producer who runs Seven Bucks alongside Johnson — formally declined Diesel’s open plea for Johnson to come back for the last two movies in the mainline Fast and Furious series. I don’t know what the hell is going on with the Diesel/Johnson feud, but that grudge seems to be burning strong on Johnson’s side at least.)
Anyway, the film incited a massive bidding war between studios back in 2018. It was ultimately Universal (again with the Fast and Furious connections) that won out and agreed to distribute the picture alongside Legendary. However, Universal eventually ditched the project due to creative differences, prompting Netflix to step in and provide the film’s $160 million budget.
And then COVID-19 happened.
Because this is a globetrotting heist thriller, over half the production was supposed to take place overseas. Alas, production was halted partway through because of the pandemic, and international travel suddenly became impossible. Thus the production team had to manufacture a massive swath of exotic locales — from coldest Russia to the deserts of Egypt, from Rome to the South American jungle, from the Louvre to the Bahamas and all points in between — without ever leaving Georgia. And that’s in addition to the added expense of putting COVID safeguards in place.
In short order, the production budget ballooned to $200 million, easily the most that Netflix has ever spent on any production. I might add that even for a production with three of the hottest A-listers working in showbiz right now, it’s tough to imagine anyone in Hollywood investing $200 million on a picture that didn’t come from an established IP. This is a historic gamble for Netflix, and they desperately need this to be a hit.
While box office reports have long been de rigeur for theatrical releases, no streaming service has ever volunteered data regarding how many people are streaming which movies. That changed roughly a week ago, when Netflix suddenly reversed course and set up a site to publish the total number of hours that their films have been streamed. Thus when Red Notice was proclaimed to be an unprecedented smash hit, Netflix had the numbers to back that claim up. No way is all of that a coincidence.
All of that aside, the plot to Red Notice concerns three golden jeweled eggs that Marc Antony purportedly gave to Cleopatra herself. The eggs were scattered upon Cleopatra’s death — one of them eventually ended up in a museum, the second is now in the custody of a crime boss (nicknamed “Sotto Voce”, played by Chris Diamantopoulos), and the third egg is completely unaccounted for.
I feel compelled to pause right here and point out that this whole angle is bullshit. Cleopatra’s eggs are not real, they’re not even legend, they were solely an invention of the filmmakers. Three golden jewel-encrusted MacGuffins, almost exactly the size and shape of an actual football, to be passed and carried and intercepted by the characters as the plot unfolds. Three eggs, one for each act.
Bad enough that the filmmakers invented their own fake history wholesale, as it would’ve been less lazy and more compelling to find some treasure with firmer roots in actual history. But if the filmmakers were going to make up their own MacGuffin, and they had full license to come up with literally anything, I’m just a little bit pissed off that this was the best they could come up with.
Anyway, Dwayne Johnson plays John Hartley, an FBI agent who’s come to help Interpol capture a notorious art thief (Nolan Booth, played by Ryan Reynolds). It’s worth mentioning that Rome is a whole ocean removed from Hartley’s jurisdiction, and Hartley flat refuses to show a badge upon request. So we already know something’s up with this character off the jump.
Regardless, Hartley helps the Interpol agent Urvashi Das (played by Ritu Arya) capture Nolan and take back the first of Cleopatra’s eggs, which Nolan stole in Rome. Long story short, the egg is intercepted by another notorious art thief known only as “The Bishop” (Gal Godot). Trouble is, Hartley was the last one seen with the egg before it was stolen. Thus Interpol gets suspicious and locks up Hartley along with Nolan.
Nolan wants to steal all three eggs, Hartley wants to clear his name, so the both of them break out of prison to chase after The Bishop and we’re off to the races.
Before I go any further, I feel compelled to talk about the action scenes. More specifically, I want to talk about the opening chase scene, which had the hairy spotted balls to put a Wilhelm Scream within the first fifteen minutes of the film. The goddamn Wilhelm Scream. In the opening chase sequence. This is where we’ve set the bar for creativity and effort with this picture.
We all know for a fact that all three of our lead actors have proven action chops, that’s been well-documented by this point. Yet there were so many times (again, that opening chase sequence was rife with them) when the characters looked like cheap stunt doubles. It’s frankly sad how this globetrotting heist blockbuster with such an absurdly overqualified cast turned out a film with such bland and uninspired action scenes.
To wit: This is a movie in which a rocket-powered grenade is fired at a helicopter, but a character opens the doors at the last minute so the missile goes through the helicopter, in one door and out the other. Does that stunt sound awesome? Fuckin’ A. How could you make that look lifeless and boring? Hell if I know, but this movie found a way.
This brings me to our three leads, who are at once this movie’s greatest strength and most glaring flaw. On the one hand, it’s Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. You know what you’re getting and their charisma has been finely honed by this point. On the other hand, it’s Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. You know what you’re getting because they’ve already done this exact same schtick a million times before in so many other, better movies.
As for Gal Godot… look, I get how she seemed like a great choice on paper. She sure as hell looks the part. The trouble is, she can’t play a lovable rogue, and she sure as hell can’t play a villain. That’s simply not a card in her deck. She can do charming, she can do seductive, she can walk into any room and make everybody else feel inferior by comparison, that’s no problem. But when she has to play a sociopath who would literally torture someone to get what she needs… sorry, I don’t buy it coming from her.
(Side note: I’m aware that Godot has recently been tapped to play the Evil Queen in the upcoming Disney live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for 2023. Like I didn’t have enough reasons to dread that particular release.)
Speaking of which, there’s the issue of Chris Diamantopoulos, who gets a prominent supporting role as a crime boss. For those who aren’t aware, Diamantopoulos is primarily known as a voice actor, and it’s great that he has such incredible skill with his voice, because his onscreen presence simply isn’t enough to convey the sufficient menace. But then I looked him up and found that Diamantopoulos has spent the past ten years as the voice of Mickey Mouse. I can’t unlearn that, and I can’t possibly take him seriously in any other onscreen role ever again because of it.
Otherwise, I appreciate all the work that got put into the production design, especially with the knowledge of the bind that this production was put into. I’ll happily admit that there were a couple of clever moments here and there: That nitroglycerin gag was pretty sweet, and the big climactic twist was nicely delivered. But even with all of that, there were still plot holes big enough to drive a WWII-era German tank through. It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers can’t seem to keep track of the motivations — between all the secrets and double-crosses, it’s not always easy to keep track of who’s on whose side, which gets to be another huge problem with the action scenes.
Basically put, Red Notice is a film that spent $200 million in the ruthless pursuit of mediocrity, and the filmmakers achieved their goal perfectly. There’s absolutely nothing in here that hasn’t already been done and done better by other franchises, and the three perfectly charming leads aren’t doing anything that they haven’t already done a million times better in other movies.
I wish I could recommend this as a fun and breezy way to pass a couple of hours, but I can’t even recommend it on those grounds. Free Guy was a more enjoyable action movie with more heart, more creativity, and better use of Ryan Reynolds. I could even say the same for Jungle Cruise with regards to Dwayne Johnson! And Gal Godot, uh… no, come to think of it, I’d still recommend Red Notice over Wonder Woman ’84, because at least Red Notice is only dull as dogshit instead of actively painful.
Even so, this is 2021. We’re going through an overstuffed winter capping off a long and dense year flooded with so many great movies. We’ve even seen quite a few other movies with these exact same stars going through the exact same motions. Against all of that, mediocrity simply isn’t enough.