Once upon a time in Hollywood: People realized that people in movies would make people go to the movies. Not just anybody — certain people. People who had that thing, that indescribable quality that made film cameras love them and audiences love them even more. They settled on calling them movie stars, suggesting something that would burn blindingly bright then either flame out or fade to black. When you were lucky enough to get a Clara or a Chaplin, a Marilyn or a Marlon, a Clooney and a Julia, you knew what you were getting. Some of them were versatile actors; for others, the concept of “range” barely even mattered. Maybe they were playing a starlet, or a blind surgeon, or a cop who has to make a choice, or a migrant farm worker who sees the face of God in a potato. It did not matter. You went to see them, or rather “them,” a screen persona blown up to IMAX-sized proportions.
Then a funny thing happened. (Gather round, children, Grandpa is telling a story.) Movie stars became something closer to comets, arcing through the sky with an increasing rarity. Some still roamed the red-carpeted Earth, gracing magazine covers [cough, cough] and fulfilling our needs for archetypes. By the 21st century, however, it was becoming harder to sell and sustain the whole shebang. Two terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad opening weekends, and sayonara. Even “all-star” projects began to feel a little threadbare: Only a third of the Ocean’s Eleven crew technically qualify as being above-the-title names. And the few that occupied that second tier of the A-list migrated to television.
Now, intellectual properties — there was something you could count on! You could sell tickets to those types of movies everywhere. You could replace actors who were difficult to handle, because whoever was behind the mask didn’t matter as much as the mask itself. You might even use them to mint something close to a star by proxy. Most people might not have known who Chris Evans was a decade ago. But they can tell you who played Captain America now.
Should you love movies and still cling to the wobbly notion that stardom is part of the package, it’s tempting to wonder who they would have cast in Red Notice during different eras. Trust us: You will need a fun distraction to get through this threadbare, throwback attempt at a celebrity-driven caper. There’s a world in which Burt Lancaster is the FBI’s top criminal profiler, Jerry Lewis is an internationally wanted jewel thief and Audrey Hepburn is a mysterious femme fatale known as “Bishop.” Or close your eyes, and drop Sylvester Stallone, John Belushi and Faye Dunaway into those roles, all of them chasing each other around the world over three priceless golden eggs that once belonged to Cleopatra. How about making Clint Eastwood, Eddie Murphy and Demi Moore jump out of stained-glass windows, engage in high-speed chases and lounge around on yachts? Really, the idea behind this lazy blockbuster-by-numbers is that you could throw any three famous people into some wonky, generic mash-up of Bond thrillers, buddy comedies, heist flicks, and Raiders of the Lost Ark outtakes and you’d still get the same diminishing returns. (We also realize there are worst-case scenarios here as well, and while we can forgive, we must never forget.)
There are extremely slim pickings for a 2021 iteration of this, which is why you get One of the Last Genuine Movie Stars Standing (Dwayne Johnson), a Very Handsome Smart-ass Who Can Also Open a Film (Ryan Reynolds) and an International Sensation Who Kicks Ass in Evening Gowns (Gal Gadot) globetrotting between Bali and Rome and Cairo, trading “quips” and looking great in expensive casual wear and doing everything but wink at the audience. The fact that two of them became mega-famous thanks to comic-book franchises — and the third is about to join the DC Universe, though years of pro-wrestling and a key part in the Fast & Furious flicks basically meant Johnson was doing superhero-movie duty already — gives you a good idea of how the system works now. Honestly, we applaud the restraint Netflix showed by not slapping the tagline “Deadpool and Wonder Woman Drive Hobbs Bananas!” on this and selling it that way.
In the past, this might have been a huge summer tentpole movie, given the sort of Planet-Hollywood-photo-shoot-writ-large premiere that suggested gods still walked among us. Now, it’s merely more Content™, something to stream between finishing that dystopian South Korean satire and starting a new season of The Great British Baking Show. Everyone involved seems to understand that this is how Red Notice — which stands for Interpol’s highest most-wanted classification, a fact that now seems ironic given the quality of the product at hand — will be consumed. So, y’know, just show up and do your thing, guys, and give the people on the couch what you think they want from you. Dwayne, you’re a compelling screen performer, so in between rehashing action scenes from better multiplex fodder, feel free to…simply stand there and look stern? Maybe give folks the side-eye occasionally? Ryan, dial up that ain’t-a-stinker act to 100, and lace every single line with weapons-grade snark. Gal, do whatever it is you do — tilt your head? look like you’re about to scold some kids? — when you’re not deflecting bullets with Amazonian bracelets. Don’t worry about plot points or WTF last-minute twists or why somebody is where or who these characters are or that this somehow all seems familiar but wrong in every possible way. Go be movie stars in exotic locales, but without all the fun that entails.
Ok, what, we’re supposed to just lap all of this up and be thankful writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber can swoop a camera? (Having been granted a permanent hall pass for giving the world Dodgeball, this particular test of your tolerance for duck-shit-slick moviemaking suggests it’s time to revoke it.) There’s something incredibly deflating about all of this, from the waste of precious screen-talent resources to the sense that you’re watching the last gasp of an age-old formula. It is like staring at a bright, shiny epitaph for two hours. We may not be able to make magnificent movie stars by the dozens anymore. But we can sure as fuck make better movie-star movies than this.