Hollywood Has Forgotten What a Good Action Movie Looks Like

Red Notice has A-list actors, globe-trotting set pieces, and a notorious art thief. Why is it so boring?

Dwayne Johnson shoots a gun in "Red Notice"

If you assembled a focus group of frequent moviegoers and asked them to describe the elements of a good action film, they’d probably come up with something along the lines of Red Notice. The star-laden blockbuster, which is dropping on Netflix this week, features three A-list names, all in familiar roles: Dwayne Johnson as a tough FBI agent, Ryan Reynolds as a motormouthed art thief, and Gal Gadot as a mysterious criminal who forces the two men to team up against her. The work is complete with globe-trotting set pieces, self-aware jokes delivered straight to the camera, and constantly shifting loyalties as each character tries to stay ahead of the others on the quest for some glittery MacGuffin.

Everything about Red Notice seems almost algorithmically determined, from the cast to the familiar tropes, so the association with Netflix, a company that prides itself on blending art and machine learning (at least in its recommendations), comes as no surprise. But this film was sought after by practically every major studio before a script even existed, based on its plot description and Johnson’s involvement alone. Netflix only later acquired the work, which was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. I went into my screening wondering what about that original pitch was scintillating enough to spark such a frenzied bidding war—did it offer some fresh take on the action film, for example? What I saw disappointed me: Red Notice is a glossy but empty product that indicates the extent of the genre’s current crisis.

That might seem like a dramatic pronouncement. Other types of movies, such as adult dramas and comedies, have started to vanish from big screens, but every week box offices are seemingly choked with blockbuster brawls. The genre has become essentially every studio’s economic powerhouse, resulting in uninspired predictability and heroes who are never actually in danger; the trashy artistry of 1980s and ’90s action classics is nothing more than a distant memory. Now many of the movies are tied to the same existing franchises (like James Bond or The Fast and the Furious), comic books, or video games. Johnson is one of the few stars who actually gets expensive, original action films made, but of late he’s tended toward disappointingly safe material. Red Notice is his most generic effort yet.

In it, Johnson plays John Hartley, an FBI agent tasked with catching the notorious art thief Nolan Booth (Reynolds). Booth is on the tail of three priceless golden eggs that were supposedly once owned by Cleopatra, but so is another bandit called the Bishop (Gadot). Hartley and Booth end up hunting around the world together, the former trying to bring the Bishop to justice, the latter looking for the treasure she’s seeking. The two dash through expensive-looking sequences set in glitzy museums, a bullfighting ring, and the deep South American jungle. They double-cross each other a few times along the way, but these betrayals only flimsily channel the oppositional buddy energy that helped drive classics such as 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, or Midnight Run back in the genre’s heyday.

Gad Godot kicks an opponent in "Red Notice"

Nothing is inherently wrong with familiarity. Hollywood has always recycled formulas that audiences respond to, and a different version of Red Notice might have had a little more verve. But its three stars seem uninterested in fleshing out their performances beyond the bare minimum. Johnson’s Hartley isn’t so much a character as he is a collection of competent skills wrapped up in a muscular package; his only flaw appears to be that he works too hard. Reynolds stays in his usual territory, with a character who is almost identical to his best-known role as the wisecracking Deadpool—Booth references popular movies, deflates tension with snarky 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 entire project seems designed to keep the stars within their comfort zones. I once described another Netflix film, the perfectly enjoyable Adam Sandler comedy Murder Mystery, as “background cinema.” Red Notice is the (reportedly) $200 million version of that. You can put it on the TV while you browse the internet on your phone, look up once in a while, and get the gist. Have you ever seen Dwayne Johnson throw someone across a room, or Ryan Reynolds snappily bicker before? Then why even look at the TV this time? It’s only more of the same.

I’m sure Red Notice would play better on a big screen—basically any movie would—but imposing visuals, a booming sound system, and the inability to look at your phone still wouldn’t solve the film’s most fundamental issues. The story lacks tension, because while its premise depends on conflict among the three stars, all of them are hyper-professional masterminds who can extricate themselves out of any situation smoothly. They’re never in any true danger, and they don’t seem likely to undergo a permanent change or arrive at a major self-realization. When punches land in this film, they leave no bruise; when bullets hit, no blood gets spilled. I don’t necessarily expect realism from my action movies, but if everyone’s walking out of a scene unscathed, it’s hard to know why I should pay attention to the next one.