The Maximum MacGuffin of Red Notice
There is a movie being self-aware, and then there is Ryan Reynolds whistling The Raiders March while traipsing through a storehouse of Nazi loot to set up the line “Look for the one labeled MacGuffin” to further the plot. Thus is the undercurrent of Red Notice on Netflix.
But it works. It works as long as you don’t take your movie watching any more seriously than Red Notice takes itself. Thankfully, it never does.
The truth is the plot points are just an excuse to get Ryan Reynolds to play Ryan Reynolds opposite Dwayne Johnson, who aptly plays up being Dwayne Johnson, with the perfect counterpoint of Gal Godot who was brilliantly cast to fill the Gal Godot role. And a good time is had by all. Critics will hate it, and fans will love it and feel well served. There are some very funny moments, some great action sequences, and the whole movie is very well made technically speaking. The three stars have all worked together in various combinations before and it shows, as they all fit together in their roles of playing to type. It’s a lot of star power wattage. As long as you don’t look at the edges of the spectacle too much, this critical mass of big ticket talent manages to provide power without going all cinematic Chernobyl.
What keeps that from happening is the winks, nods, and almost relentless reminders both in dialogue and plot by the writers and movie makers to let the audience know that they know that this would all be ridiculous if we didn’t all want it to work and kept the levity percolating along just enough to keep this brew from turning bitter. So we forgive the plot points and narrative swerves that come off like a greatest hits of better movies if taken on their own as serious cinema. And we can laugh along at Renyolds being his action-comedy best cranked to 11 to keep the Rock’s stoic action hero balanced and let Gadot sizzle and smart her way between and around them. Therefore, things that would be cringe and dealbreakers in a movie that was taking itself too serious only get an eye roll or a chuckle of “I knew it” before sticking around to watch the story go where most folks knew it was going anyway.
But though critics and Very Serious Cinema Folks (TM) will hate such shenanigans, is it not the mark of a good movie that it connects with an audience on that meta level? These days where, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, every fan can find out everything about a movie instantly while still watching it, right down to bloopers and production errors, isn’t it an achievement to just acknowledge that reality and play it to a film’s advantage? Rawson Marshall Thurber seems to be doing his own greatest hits package, having directed films from the very funny DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story to the big budget action thriller Skyscraper.
Skyscraper particularly came to mind watching Red Notice. That film, also starring Dwayne Johnson, did well enough but critics and fans alike found it to have two big problems. The first, it was clearly rehashed bits of Die Hard and Towering Inferno, and reactions ranged from calling it an homage to decrying it as a straight rip off. The second problem was, if you are going to rip off Die Hard, you’d better have an Alan Rickman to offset Bruce Willis. And no disrespect to Roland Møller, who is a fine actor, but he was no Alan Rickman.
Thurber solved that problem this time around by having the interplay between the headlining throuple, all of whom can hang individually or in combination with/against the others. The supporting cast does well, the production is slick, and the plot keeps the MacGuffins at the proper intervals. “Paint by numbers” or “formulaic” are bad words used by film critics, but sometimes when you have three huge stars and a big budget to play with, painting by numbers gives you just enough structure to keep the whole thing from flying apart. Big budgets with big stars have failed before, and the combination can make for a spectacular meltdown. The real Chernobyl became infamous for its Number 4 reactor explosion, but they didn’t make any mini-series about reactors 1, 2 or 3, and how the rest of the power plant functioned – for the most part – up until 2015.
Let us praise Thurber for avoiding the spectacular failure, and just making something really entertaining in Red Notice. A dangling ending hints at more to come. And there’s little doubt that the sequel will be more paint by numbers, more formulas, and more of the three main stars playing themselves. But the movie gets the job done, and I didn’t resent the 118 minutes I spent watching it with my family. I laughed out loud a few times. I enjoyed the characters. I’ll watch the next one when it comes out. I’ll make McGuffin jokes right along with the characters for good measure.
That’s a win in this day and age with movies and me. Just take the win.