For a quasi-high-concept buddy chase flick about elite, high-tech art thieves, Red Notice is short on dazzling distractions. It certainly looks expensive, which should come as no surprise, given its superhero-movie-sized budget (reportedly the largest in Netflix’s history). We get pricey cars, fancy clothes, lavish sets, and action scenes that probably involved countless VFX man-hours, not to mention a trio of bankable stars. But there are certain things that money can’t buy. As it turns out, an infectious sense of fun is one of them.
Dwayne Johnson, who previously essayed the roles of an ex-Special Forces primatologist in Rampage and a one-legged ex-FBI building-security consultant in Skyscraper, stars as John Hartley, another big, beefy only-in-the-movies type who’s introduced as the FBI’s top psychological profiler of—what else—art thieves. He’s arrived in Rome to catch the notorious Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), who’s about to steal the first of a trio of jumbo-sized Fabergé MacGuffins known as “Cleopatra’s three bejeweled eggs.”
Booth gets away but only briefly, setting off a convoluted, globe-trotting plot. Hartley apprehends Booth in Bali, gets framed for stealing the egg and swapping it out for a fake, and ends up as Booth’s cellmate in a Russian prison. This has apparently all been the doing of the world’s most wanted art thief, The Bishop (Gal Gadot), who intends to get her hands on all three eggs so she can sell them for a princely sum to an Egyptian billionaire just in time for his daughter’s wedding. Hartley and Booth become unlikely allies. As is usually the case in such situations, there’s a determined Interpol inspector (Ritu Arya) in pursuit.
Twists, near misses, con games, and chases follow; Nazis are eventually involved. With these basic plot ingredients (secrets, antiquities, museums, Third Reich plunder), it’s not hard to imagine how a little goofiness and tour-guide geekery could spruce up Red Notice into a kind of art-world National Treasure, with characters rattling off facts about Gustav Klimt as they decode the conspiratorial symbolism of Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Instead, the movie mostly drops the art angle in favor of generic adventure hijinks and gambles on the odd-couple chemistry of Johnson and Reynolds. The former flashes his million-dollar smirk. The latter fidgets, cracks wise, and drops an endless stream of movie references. They’ve done this in other movies. Here, they do it at each other. (Gadot, in the meantime, simply projects her familiar hauteur.)
In between the bog-standard banter, one can hear the creaks of lousy modern screenwriting; all three characters, for instance, get monologues about their respective daddy issues. The action set pieces feel like they were selected at random and dropped into the script. There’s a bullfight, a prison break, a long tunnel chase with a bulletproof vintage Mercedes.
Rawson Marshall Thurber, who previously directed Johnson in Central Intelligence and the aforementioned Skyscraper, has admittedly improved: His camerawork has become less awkward, and there’s even a decent foot chase in the opening sequence. But the scale and timing of Spielbergian spectacle continues to elude him; the larger action scenes feel like frictionless digital imitations of the real thing. Whistling the Indiana Jones theme (as Booth does at one point in a cache of Nazi loot) does not provoke a flattering comparison.
Red Notice earns occasional laughs when it manages to subvert expectations, e.g., a car chase that ends almost immediately with a collision. But for the most part, it replicates only the most predictable aspects of big-studio entertainment: messy pacing, bad pop culture jokes, clumsy lingering close-ups on the logos of various product-placement sponsors. This is the stuff that reminds us that Hollywood movies are made with charts and committees; we don’t enjoy it, but we put up with it in exchange for a good time. Red Notice only has the time part down. The good, like the bejeweled egg, is frequently missing.