If you assembled a focus group of frequent moviegoers and asked them to describe the elements of a good action movie, they would probably come up with something along the lines of Red notification. The star-loaded blockbuster, which hits Netflix this week, features three A-list names, all in familiar roles: Dwayne Johnson as a tough FBI agent, Ryan Reynolds as a motorcycle-mouthed art thief, and Gal Gadot as a mysterious criminal who forces the two men to team up against her. The work is complete with world-traveling set pieces, self-conscious jokes brought straight to the camera, and constantly shifting loyalties as each character tries to stay ahead of the others in the quest for a glittering MacGuffin.
Everything about Red notification seems almost algorithmically determined, from the cast to the well-known figures of speech, so its association with Netflix, a company that prides itself on combining art and machine learning (at least in its recommendations), comes as no surprise. But this movie was sought after by pretty much every major studio before there was even a script, based on the plot description and Johnson’s involvement alone. Netflix didn’t acquire the work until later, which was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. I went to my screening I wondered if that original pitch was sparkly enough to spark such a frenzied bidding war – did it offer a fresh take on the action movie, for instance? What I saw disappointed me: Red notification is a shiny but empty product that indicates the magnitude of the current crisis of the genre.
That may seem like a dramatic statement. Other types of movies, such as adult dramas and comedies, have started to disappear from big screens, but every week the box office is seemingly choked with blockbuster fights. The genre has essentially become the economic powerhouse of any studio, resulting in uninspired predictability and heroes that are never really in danger; the trashy artistry of 80s and 90s action classics is nothing more than a distant memory. Now many of the movies are linked to the same existing franchises (such as James Bond or The Fast and the Furious), comic books or video games. Johnson is one of the few stars to make expensive original action movies, but lately he’s been leaning towards disappointingly safe material. Red notification is his most generic attempt to date.
In the, Johnson plays John Hartley, an FBI agent who must catch the notorious art thief Nolan Booth (Reynolds). Booth is on the trail of three priceless golden eggs once owned by Cleopatra, but so is another bandit, the Bishop (Gadot). Hartley and Booth go hunting around the world together, the former tries to bring the bishop to justice, the latter seeks the… treasure she seeks. The two run through expensive-looking sequences set in glitzy museums, a bullfighting ring and the deep South American jungle. They cheat on each other a few times along the way, but this betrayal is only weak channel the opposition buddy energy that helped drive classics like 48 hours., Deadly Weapon, or midnight run back to the genre’s heyday.
There is nothing wrong with familiarity. Hollywood has always reused formulas that the public reacts to, and a different version of Red notification might have had a little more vigor. But the three stars don’t seem interested in fleshing out their performances beyond the bare minimum. Johnson’s Hartley isn’t so much a character as it is a collection of competent skills packed into a muscular package; his only fault seems to be that he works too hard. Reynolds stays in his usual territory, with a character nearly identical to his best-known role as the wisecracking Deadpool – Booth references popular movies, deflates the tension with nefarious jokes, and fills dead air with winking bloviation. Gadot has by far the least screen time and she uses it to do absolutely nothing of interest.
The whole project seems designed to keep the stars within their comfort zone. I once described another Netflix movie, the perfectly enjoyable Adam Sandler comedy murder mystery, as ‘background cinema’. Red notification is the (allegedly) $200 million version of that. You can put it on the TV while surfing the web on your phone, look it up once in a while and get the gist. Have you ever seen Dwayne Johnson throw someone across a room, or Ryan Reynolds snarl at bickering? Then why are you still watching TV this time? It’s just more of the same.
I’m sure Red notification would play better on a big screen – in fact any movie would – but impressive visuals, a great sound system and the inability to look at your phone still wouldn’t solve the movie’s most fundamental problems. The story lacks suspense, because while the premise depends on the conflict between the three stars, they are all hyper-professional masterminds who can smoothly free themselves from any situation. They are never in real danger and do not seem likely to undergo any lasting change or achieve great self-realization. When blows fall in this movie, they don’t leave bruises; when bullets hit, no blood is spilled. I don’t necessarily expect realism from my action movies, but when everyone walks out of one scene unscathed, it’s hard to see why I should pay attention to the next.