Synopsis – A small army of well trained criminals led by Grace Lewis have hijacked a train deep beneath the English Channel.
My Take – There are many reasons behind why Die Hard (1988) is still considered as one of best action film of all time, with the most important one being that it kept us intrigued throughout as we witnessed a vulnerable and charming protagonist push through an impossible situation.
And like most art forms, with great success comes equal number of imitations, a barrage of copies followed, which kept the format intact and saw only changes in leads and settings. Of course most of these duplicates fumbled, some did find success to an extent like the Under Siege (1992), Air Force One (1997), with the most recent being, Skyscraper (2018) led by Dwayne Johnson.
The latest to join the line-up is screenwriter Laurence Malkin’s adaptation of the first novel from author Andy McNab‘s series which finds his protagonist Tom Buckingham solely taking on a bunch of mercenaries in a channel tunnel. In simpler terms, it is Die Hard on a train. Sadly though this mimic, helmed by director Magnus Martens, has none of the charm or wit that made the Bruce Willis starrer such a hit with audiences worldwide.
While the film has a decent star cast and features a great idea for a claustrophobic action set-piece, other than that, however, it’s a sum-total of an unoriginal and dull experience. Mainly as throughout its run time it sticks to being a routine, standard-issue actioner that unapologetically, embraces its genre roots while following every story, action, and emotional beat typical of middling genre entries.
Sure there’s action aplenty and for the most part it’s perfectly serviceable, but ultimately the film will leave even the most traditionalist action fans (like myself) feeling displeased at the end.
The story follows Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan), a top-level SAS officer with a very special set of skills focused primarily on eliminating foes, real and potential, with a combination of minimal effort and extreme prejudice. Being an efficient killing machine for the Crown, however, has its drawbacks, including a profound inability to open up emotionally to his longtime girlfriend, Sophie Hart (Hannah John-Kamen), a doctor, and taking their relationship to the next level. But convinced that he is in love with her, he decides to take Sophie to Paris via the Channel Tunnel, and surprise her with a proposal.
However, his excellent plan lays to waste when a bunch of ruthless mercenaries known as the Black Swans, led by Grace Lewis (Ruby Rose), who has been issued a red notice along with her brother, Oliver (Owain Yeoman), and father, William (Tom Wilkinson), for incinerating a Georgian village, hijack the tunnel train, stop it dead in its literal tracks, and demand a ransom in the amount of 500 million pounds in exchange for the safety of the passengers.
While Buckingham springs into action-hero mode, dispatching henchmen along the way, he’s soon separated from Sophie, forcing him to re-calibrate his approach, until the SAS counter-terrorism unit ostensibly led by Major Bisset (Noel Clarke), but clearly controlled by George Clements (Andy Serkis), a shadowy government operative who is eager to silence Grace, find a way in. The SAS unit also includes Buckingham’s long-time friend and comrade-at-arms, Declan Smith (Tom Hopper). But somewhere in or around the SAS unit, however, a traitor lurks, collaborating with Grace for a share of the proceeds and offering real time updates on Buckingham.
When you’re contending with a premise such as that, it’s required that you make it unique. Unfortunately, the film isn’t unique or original. It isn’t all boring, as for about an hour in the midsection, the film hits all the right notes. But saddled with a corny script that is unable to add any sense of authenticity, humor, excitement or drama to an action film that actually has a decent setup, there is not much director Magnus Martens can do.
It isn’t nearly as appropriately paced either. The film feels pretty bloated and unnecessarily long with a 123 minute long runtime. A trimmed-down runtime could’ve certainly helped make it more consumable.
There is no deeper level to the film, and while one could argue that the film doesn’t really need one, as it does, as a basically competent action thriller, it would certainly be nice if the film wasn’t so obviously thoughtless in its handling of the characters and situations.
Buckingham is clearly designed to become an Ethan Hunt or Jack Ryan like figure that can command a big screen presence. With his backstory being that he has lost his parents but inherited ownership of a vast estate with a butler of his own. It is also implied that Buckingham is leaning heavily towards the psychopathic end of the spectrum. He is clinically cold about everything, especially around matters of death and killing. But even when his girlfriend is struggling to connect or empathize with him, how are we supposed to?
His main adversary, is also another psychopath. With both protagonist and antagonist incapable of showing emotion, the film makes for an erratic experience. It also leads to an unintentionally hilarious moment where, during a fist fight, rather than a stare of glowering intensity, the two share a banal look that implies they may drop weapons and fall in love.
The film definitely suffers as a franchise vehicle, and by the time the final credits roll it feels more like you’ve watched a brief origin tale with a story meant to highlight the gray in the standard tale, and to call out the multiple evils that exist in any kind of major government body.
Considering the weak script, the performances are adequate all over. Outlander star Sam Heughan makes for a solid lead. Playing Tom Buckingham is the perfect audition for the English spy. Buckingham is an impossibly charming, deadly assassin who manages to look debonair even when in the heat of action and the Scottish actor ticks all the right boxes to make a cracking 007 in the film. Ruby Rose too does well, and makes for a delicious antagonist, while Hannah John-Kamen makes the most of an underwritten role.
As always, Andy Serkis reliably steals every scene with his barking army sergeant shtick, while Noel Clarke, Owain Yeoman, Ray Panthaki, Jing Lusi and Tom Hopper are decent in their roles. In an all-too-brief role, Tom Wilkinson elevates otherwise limited material. On the whole, ‘SAS: Red Notice’ is a bland action thriller letdown by its lazy, cliché filled lousy script.
Directed – Magnus Martens
Rated – R
Run Time – 123 minutes