For decades, the easiest way to determine whether a blockbuster was a success for its studio was by looking at the box office receipts: The more money the movie made, the better chance it would provide a strong return on investment. But it’s a bit trickier to deduce whether a blockbuster has met expectations when the project isn’t coming from a studio, but rather a streaming company. Ever since the 2017 release of Bright—a bonkers movie that its star Will Smith pitched as Training Day meets Lord of the Rings—Netflix has dabbled in making its own blockbusters, to mixed results. For every stinker like Bright or 6 Underground, there’s been a relative hit like Extraction or Army of the Dead, which might not end up on a critics’ year-end list but certainly clears the bar of “watchable enough that a Netflix subscriber shouldn’t be flipping through their phone during most of its running time.”
In theory, viewing numbers for a movie would be the streaming equivalent of a box office haul. But setting aside the fact that Netflix’s viewership metrics are both shrouded in secrecy and self-reported—and therefore should be taken with an ocean’s worth of salt—it appears the company cares about quality to go with its quantity. Despite Netflix’s claim that 6 Underground—Michael Bay’s explosive(ly stupid) interpretation of the Mission: Impossible franchise—was one of the most-watched original movies in the streamer’s history, the company won’t pursue a sequel because it felt the film was a letdown creatively. (The decision is a bit more puzzling considering that Bright, by all accounts a film with as lowly a reputation as 6 Underground, will move forward with a sequel.)
Netflix’s decision-making remains hard to discern from the outside looking in, but the streamer has nevertheless become something of a refuge for a type of film that’s been increasingly crowded out of the theatrical landscape: the non-IP blockbuster. The company’s latest buzzy and original tentpole, Red Notice, is indicative of this shift. As traditional studios double down on superhero franchises and other forms of recognizable IP, there’s even less room for original blockbusters. On the whole, studios are more comfortable wringing every last drop from properties that audiences are familiar with rather than run the risk of trying something new, which can explain how a project like Red Notice landed in Netflix’s lap.
Back in 2018, Red Notice, a globe-trotting action-adventure caper about rival art thieves and the FBI agent on their tail, was green-lit at Universal as the latest collaboration between writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber and Dwayne Johnson (see: Central Intelligence and Skyscraper). But Universal ultimately got cold feet about footing the bill, perhaps in part due to Skyscraper’s somewhat modest gross for the studio, which was particularly disappointing in North America. Instead, Red Notice was acquired by Netflix, where, with a budget that reportedly reached $200 million, it became the streamer’s most expensive movie to date.
It’s not the first time Netflix has scooped up a project a major studio balked at; films as far-ranging as The Cloverfield Paradox and The Irishman were both originally set up at Paramount. But Red Notice seems like one of the most transparent attempts yet by the streamer to combine the old-school philosophy of blockbuster filmmaking with the modern desire to kick-start a franchise to call its own.
In lieu of familiar IP to draw viewers in, Red Notice is banking on the star wattage of its three leads: Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. The emphasis on movie stars over the contents of the story is exemplified by the film’s bare-bones (and objectively terrible) poster, which is just the trio posing in fancy attire. While the poster itself is half-assed, the intent behind it is clear. In essence, Red Notice is a throwback to the star-driven blockbusters that studios were rolling out before the turn of the century—when the biggest draw of The Running Man, Total Recall, or True Lies was simply the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to them.
In Thurber’s hands, those actors lean on their respective strengths to be Red Notice’s biggest selling point. As art thief Nolan Booth, Reynolds stays in his usual lane as a wisecracking comic foil; Johnson plays FBI agent John Hartley, another in a long line of the actor’s oily portrayals of members of law enforcement; and Gadot’s character, a mysterious criminal mastermind known only as the Bishop, has enough similarities with her turn in the Fast & Furious franchise that it won’t be all that surprising if Red Notice is retroactively labeled a prequel. (As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a post-credits scene where the Bishop reveals that her real name is Gisele Yashar.)
It’s commendable that Netflix is willing to fork over the same amount of money that Marvel reportedly spent on Eternals for an original blockbuster like Red Notice. Despite all the anxiety around Netflix’s ascension being a threat to the theatrical experience, streaming services are doing the lion’s share of the work in keeping certain kinds of films alive. (See also: mid-budget dramas and romantic comedies.) But it’s one thing for Netflix to be a haven for non-IP tentpoles; it’s another for the streamer to make movies at this scale that are worth seeking out over the latest entry in the MCU.
Unfortunately, in spite of its price tag and star power, Red Notice falls more on the Bright and 6 Underground end of the Netflix blockbuster spectrum. There’s a cold, almost algorithmic quality to the film and its performances, to the extent that calling Red Notice an original conceit feels disingenuous. Red Notice cribs so liberally from classic action-adventure movies that, in the third act, Reynolds’s character begins humming the Indiana Jones theme before entering a secret Nazi bunker that contains stolen historical artifacts and bears a striking resemblance to the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. (Whatever the winking intent, the humming just makes the viewer wish they were watching an Indiana Jones movie.)
As for the humor, meta jokes from the man behind Deadpool about MacGuffins, his character fighting background extras, and Vin Diesel prove increasingly tiresome when Reynolds doesn’t have a capable sparring partner—at one point Johnson’s character is described, not inaccurately, as a “well-dressed wall.” Meanwhile, Gadot’s character has barely any screentime, which, given her shortcomings at playing anyone outside of Wonder Woman, was probably the best decision made in the movie. But in an era when movie stars are fading and franchises continue to dominate the theatrical landscape, it’s frustrating to see actors squander a golden opportunity in the spotlight by being devoid of their usual charisma, being woefully miscast, or sticking to their usual schtick to diminishing returns.
Red Notice does end by setting itself up as a potential franchise that could keep the trio’s globe-trotting adventures going, one extravagant art-related heist at a time. But given the mixed messages Netflix has sent by giving Bright a sequel while putting 6 Underground to rest, it remains to be seen what fate befalls the similarly disappointing Red Notice. In any case, Red Notice’s standing as the streamer’s most expensive film ever will be short-lived. Sometime next year, Netflix will debut The Gray Man, an action-thriller from the Russo brothers that’s been likened to James Bond and reportedly has a price tag north of $200 million.
The Gray Man is similarly encouraging in that Netflix is spending a massive amount of money for a movie compared to James Bond when it’s difficult for any spy movies to be made with that budget that don’t actually star 007. But as Bright, 6 Underground, and now Red Notice have underlined, green-lighting original blockbusters is only half the battle. After all, if the streamer’s projects don’t live up to the movies they’re trying to emulate, audiences can simply seek out Lord of the Rings, Training Day, Mission: Impossible, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, rather than a bland facsimile of them. Until Netflix has more hits than misses with their blockbuster slate, the streamer needs to be put on notice.