A buddy action-comedy that blends elements of James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Entrapment, Indiana Jones, True Lies, The Fugitive, and many, many more, Red Notice is a welcome throwback to the days before omnipresent franchises and IP, when movie stars and original (or, in this case, “original”) blockbusters ruled the industry. Of course, writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s spectacular isn’t—save for one limited week, beginning Nov. 5—arriving in multiplexes as its predecessors did; rather, it’s debuting on Netflix (Nov. 12) as the streaming platform’s most expensive endeavor to date, at a reported cost of upwards of $200 million. Nonetheless, there’s something refreshingly old school about this mega-budget project, which puts all of its money on the screen in one giant globetrotting set piece after another while hinging its success on the charisma of its sexy, bruising, funny leads.
In the mid-’90s, Red Notice would have resembled any number of summer movies built around the appeal of marquee headliners and a slam-bang premise. Today, however, it feels practically anachronistic, and it’s refreshing to have a gaudily expensive production such as this strive to entertain through lots of frantic sizzle and witty one-liners, the last of which come via Ryan Reynolds, one-third of the film’s A-list trio that also includes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Gal Gadot. There’s no depth here; only a well-worn text that’s been retrofitted with occasional CGI. As such, it’s the sort of venture they generally don’t make anymore, and the fact that it’s made pretty well immediately casts it as an antidote to the endless barrage of superhero, sci-fi, and horror sequels and retreads that now dominate the marketplace.
Put another way: Red Notice is akin to a slightly higher class of junk food that you haven’t eaten in a while, and much of the satisfaction derived from its nonsense is due to the participation of Reynolds. As cocky master thief Nolan Booth, the Deadpool and Free Guy star does exactly what he always does, which is flash his pearly whites with a self-consciously arrogant twinkle in his eye and crack wise whenever possible. In Red Notice, that’s just about every time he opens his mouth; Thurber’s script imagines Booth as a limitless fount of snarky pop culture-inflected quips. Many of those remarks are funny in and of themselves (for example, after some Johnson clumsiness at a black-tie event, Reynolds exclaims, “You look like a well-dressed wall!”). Yet it’s the ceaselessness of his jokey barrage that’s truly winning; at a certain point, one simply winds up chuckling at Reynolds’ inexhaustible supply of silly jibes and retorts.
If you don’t have a high tolerance for Reynolds’ schtick, Red Notice won’t win you over, since he’s the comedic third of a triptych in which Johnson serves as the straight-man muscle and Gadot functions as the sultry villainess. That structure isn’t very novel but it does allow each star to play to their strengths, and it results in a three-way dynamic that allows for creative mismatches, both in terms of banter and skirmishes. Reynolds and Johnson are a bickering little-big pair, Reynolds and Gadot share a competitive dueling-burglar rapport, and Johnson and Gadot have a flirtatious-adversary chemistry, all of which is exploited in a variety of different locales that keeps things fresh, be it an imposing Rome art museum, a wintry Russian prison, an opulent Valencia mansion, or the lush jungles of Argentina.
You’ll notice that I’ve yet to discuss the actual plot of Red Notice, and that’s largely because it’s an amalgamation of many oft-told tales that’s just the pretext for seeing these actors strut their highly particular stuff. Thurber’s saga concerns three priceless bejeweled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra, one of which has been lost to time. Booth covets them as a means of proving that he’s the greatest thief in the world, and so too does his rival, the Bishop (Gadot); John Hartley (Johnson), meanwhile, is the FBI profiler driven to stop them both from pulling off their robberies. As far as setups go, it’s relatively routine, although the film stages its daring heists, outrageous prison breaks, and treasure hunting with gusto, assuming various guises—a little Ghost Protocol here, a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark there—with a verve that makes its conventionality go down smoother.
There are double-crosses and surprises aplenty in Red Notice, some of them telegraphed more egregiously than others, and its well-executed fights and gags maintain a lively atmosphere that’s far more important than the preposterousness of its narrative twists and turns. Arms dealers, torture, SWAT teams, and rockets that miraculously pass through the doors of a flying helicopter are all part of its overstuffed and absurd stew. Thurber smartly leans into the inherent ridiculousness of his endeavor—as well as has Reynolds make a couple of overt cracks about it—without letting things tip into parody. That balancing act is matched by the performances of Johnson, Gadot, and Reynolds, who appear to be having a blast embodying characters that are less three-dimensional human beings than exaggerated riffs on their own distinctive big-screen personas.
Red Notice embraces a typical banter-chase-banter-fight-banter-explosion formula, and its script is split evenly between Reynolds smart-assery and functional exposition, the latter of which sometimes turns out to be merely more of the former. It’s got the energy of an eager-to-please puppy dog, and a pedal-to-the-metal pace that helps it blow past most questionable plot developments. The film comes across as a combination of Thurber’s prior two Johnson collaborations (Central Intelligence and Skyscraper), and though he’s no great visual stylist, the writer/director handles his material’s numerous modes with proficiency, infusing his PG-13 violence with wit (and vice versa) in order to keep the proceedings light and amusing. They’re also lavish, even if a handful of scenes can’t hide their chintzy CGI set-design effects.
Despite operating as a stand-alone affair that’s untethered to Marvel, DC, Star Wars, or another Happy Meal-friendly property, Red Notice ultimately reveals its own desire to be a franchise. That’s probably inevitable given today’s cinematic landscape. Yet it’s not totally depressing, since Hollywood could use a few more rock-'em-sock-'em movies in which one superstar tells another, “Does the back of your head look like a huge penis? The answer is yes.”