When I was a kid, I saw the Dustin Hoffman movie Outbreak on opening weekend. One of the scenes in that movie takes place in a movie theater, the camera following the literal particles of a sick theatergoer’s coughs and phlegmatic expulsions as they’re sucked around the room and breathed in by the other in-film theatergoing folk, all of whom are happy and laughing with their mouths wide open to show it. During this scene, in the real-life movie theater, with the Motaba virus taking center stage on the screen, someone coughed. Multiple times, and with great vigor.
This got a huge laugh from the entire crowd. I don’t think it was an intentional cough. I think it was the kind of coincidence that in hindsight underscores the blissful ignorance of everyone there to witness it. Thanks to our lovely, smoldering pandemic, I haven’t seen a movie in a movie theater in 23 months. I really don’t know when I’ll once again feel comfortable sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers plus the bacterial results of all their interactions that day, week, month.
Also, thanks to a childcare situation best described as a couple notches shy of helpless, I haven’t been able to stream that many movies over the last couple of years, either. So it would be a bit of an understatement to say that I’ve kind of been in the mood for a really fun, absurd, over-the-top movie to just take me the fuck away for a minute. One that’s goofy and slick; one that doesn’t take its story too seriously, but that takes the act of storytelling and moviemaking very seriously indeed. Something ludicrous and self-aware, preferably with heists. And yes, it has to be a movie; this is the golden age of television but a two-hour commitment is a beautiful thing.
Red Notice, I am very happy to report, is all of that and a bunch more. There’s still a full Red Notice review for you below, but: if the world at large has you overtopped with open-ended dread, know that the movie will relieve you for a little while. Stop reading this and go watch it. And then come back so we can talk about it.
I almost feel silly writing a Red Notice review, because it turns out pretty much everything you need to know about it is right there in the trailer. And I recognize that that might sound like a bad thing, or outright dismissive, but what I mean is that you don’t really need to understand the intricacies of Red Notice‘s plot to enjoy it. It’s a marriage between a heist movie and an action movie and it stars three beautiful people, in a ton of beautiful settings, doing a ton of outrageously impossible shit in pursuit of some priceless relics. The movie also upholds the most important rule of any heist: ultimately, those relics matter less for the viewer than the pursuit itself.
The broad strokes of the plot are these. Mark Antony’s marriage gift to Cleopatra was three gigantic, bejeweled, golden eggs, so far beyond Fabergé they would turn Octopussy eight different shades of green. For thousands of years, they were presumed lost to the sands of time — until, at the beginning of the last century, two of the eggs were uncovered. But the third was never found.
Enter Nathan Booth, formerly the best art thief in the world (ably played by Ryan Reynolds) and a mysterious figure known only as The Bishop (Gal Gadot, having a ball), the current best art thief in the world, who find themselves in a race to steal the two known eggs from their highly guarded display cases and figure out how to snag the third, because an Egyptian billionaire has offered the art thieving and smuggling community a $300 million prize for delivering all three eggs to his doorstep so he can give them as a present to his daughter, Cleopatra, on the night of her upcoming wedding.
They are chased by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Special Agent John Hartley, FBI, the world’s foremost expert in profiling, tracking, and arresting art thieves. Because she’s also a master manipulator, The Bishop is able to convince Interpol that Hartley is, in fact, a thief posing as an FBI agent, and to have him thrown in a secret prison alongside Booth, with whom he must now work in order to clear his sullied name. Hijinks upon hijinks ensue.
It sounds complicated. It’s really not. All you need to keep in mind is that there are artifacts to be had and every allegiance is temporary. On both fronts, Red Notice goes so hard that it’s frankly impossible to dislike. There is at least one double-cross in every single act. There are showdowns galore, some of them beautifully unexpected. (Booth’s nonviolent scaffold ballet is a highlight of the film as well as of fight scenes in general.) There are plenty of great one-liners (“It’s like Alexa, but with guns”; “Wow, we’ve got some dads — it’s a miracle we’re not strippers”). The pace is breathless. And the origin stories are, mercifully, real real short.
On that note: a quick word about those double-crosses. Because they’re as prominent a character as the three leads, I can foresee plenty of Red Notice reviews arguing that the movie is over-reliant upon them, that they amount to a sort of deus ex machina. That’s not entirely inaccurate or unfair. For me, the knowledge that there would be a big plot twist about every fifteen minutes didn’t occlude the possibility of dramatic tension as much as it proved there’s almost certainly no need for that tension in a movie like this. The most satisfying heist-slash-caper movies understand that the stakes are built into the genre. You don’t have to create a superstructure of risk beyond the basic story itself. Rawson Marshall Thurber, Red Notice‘s writer and director, tells this story across a high wire along which he’s strung a series of elaborate set pieces. In keeping the movie’s balance, he keeps Red Notice from falling into the risk-free territory of a true cartoon.
Red Notice is also the kind of movie that looks like it was an absolute blast to make, which matters here because that joy comes across on screen in some effortlessly tight performances. Ryan Reynolds is the best version of himself, which is to say that Booth is sarcastic without being smarmy, vulnerable when he needs to be and comic everywhere else. The trailer had me worried that Dwayne Johnson would be a little too dour, but I shouldn’t have — Hartley’s straight arrow straight man also has enough room for a sense of humor, especially after one late-stage double-cross that blindsided me but still left me smiling.
And it will probably come as no surprise to hear that Gal Gadot pretty much steals the whole show. The Bishop has the cunning eyes of someone always at least a half-step ahead of you and the total charm of a person who knows you’ll always be happy to pursue. At different points in Red Notice, she coerces a character into silence by simply threatening to expose his browser history, sings “Downtown” while tasing someone’s balls to extract information, and commits international fraud and identity theft while enjoying an episode of The Great British Baking Show. Thankfully, The Bishop gets no real back story, no overriding motivation beyond doing whatever’s necessary to keep the chase going. She is Heist Personified.
Because this is Gal Gadot, she also does the expected sexy international art thief stuff, like dance with Hartley while he threatens to arrest her. (I was a bit disappointed that Red Notice didn’t end with him following through on his continued threat to “see her in handcuffs,” presumably in bed. But there’s bound to be a Red Notice 2: Code Black, so the flames of hope can keep on burning.)
But, despite its cast, Red Notice is less interested in sexy times and more interested in simple movement. I’ll say it again: this movie keeps up the breathless pace of a Scorsese montage for almost its entire running length. A tip of the cap to Steve Jablonsky’s score, with its homages to the bouncy jazz of Ocean’s Eleven and the string-and-brass bursts of John Barry’s legendary James Bond bombast, for keeping time.
I acknowledge that maybe (definitely?) Red Notice‘s breathlessness helps obscure some plot holes. But I’ll also say this again: it’s still a pandemic. Right now, I couldn’t care less about leaps of faith for the sake of entertainment. Nor did I notice any major ones, beyond the usual action movie stuff like Hartley getting rammed by a bull and not suffering any crushed ribs or death.
And does stuff like that even count as a plot hole or a problem in a movie like this? I submit that it really does not. Especially when the movie knows it’s being ridiculous and embraces that fact like Booth and Hartley trying to convince each other that they kinda sorta are a team and kinda sorta do give a shit about each other.
About halfway through Red Notice, I became convinced that there was no way to wrap things up before the credits. I then immediately realized I didn’t care. Not only because Red Notice is the kind of movie that you can be sure sets itself up for a sequel (and it does). When you’re loving the ride a story takes you on, you just forgive silly little things like characters not suffering internal injuries after every car accident and blow to the head and like the story “wrapping up” tidily. There are the rules of storytelling; there are genre conventions; and then there’s the internal logic of every well-told story, one that discards all the other stuff as it sees fit. The moment you realize you’ve let yourself become subject to that internal logic is a splendid, splendid thing. It means you’ve surrendered your skepticism and fear and whatever else you’ve got rattling around in the old emotional bedpan in exchange for an out-of-mind experience. I wouldn’t trade it for all the Cleopatra eggs in the world.