Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan) is ready to pop the question to Dr Sophie Hart (Hannah John-Kamen) on a romantic getaway to Paris. However, the train journey through the channel tunnel has an unexpected stop when its overrun by a group of deadly mercenaries lead by wanted war criminal Grace Lewis (Ruby Rose). But wouldn’t you know it, Buckingham is a trained SAS soldier and his profession is dropping bad guys on a daily basis. With innocent lives on the line, not to mention being caught in the crossfire between his SAS team and the terrorists, Buckingham faces a tough battle ahead of him.
During my movie lockdown viewings, seeing the words “a Sky original” with any of their Sky Cinema content does not necessarily fill me with confidence. Having watched a few of their big-budget offerings this year, I’ve often come away with the notion that Sky Cinema means well making original movies but something always seems to be missing or misguidedly added for sake of wide appeal.
Take their first offering of 2021 into consideration, the ghostly comedy Blithe Spirit. A competent adaptation of the 1941 Noël Coward’s play with a suitable cast featuring Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher and Judi Dench but for all the daft ghostly nonsense going on, the film couldn’t decide which character we were supposed to root for.
Things didn’t improve either later on family crime caper Twist. A contemporary adaptation of the beloved Dickens story that transported the story to present-day London and the word of art heists. You can understand the film wanting a bit of prestige casting Michael Caine as the movie’s Fagin. But when Oliver Twist and friends just love to show how much parkour they love doing – and that film REALLY loved showing you parkour – Twist was painful to watch.
So we come to their latest offering, a bold adaptation of Andy McNab’s action thriller, SAS: Red Notice. This isn’t the first time McNab has seen his work adapted for visual audiences with Bravo Two Zero and The Grey Man previously shifting from book to screen. In comparison to other Sky Cinema offerings so far, it’s certainly better than the previous 2021 offerings but there are still some things that aren’t clicking or become a disservice to the film.
At first, looking generally over the film, it ticks a lot of boxes as an action thriller. There’s a big-budget feel with a series of short but impressively staged action sequences adequately handled by Magnus Martens, the film’s director, who is best known for the taunt comedy-thriller Jackpot as well as frequently directing for television with shows like Banshee and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the non-discerning action fan, this will satisfy a Saturday film night quite easily.
Looking deeper into the storytelling and presentation elements, things start to be noticeable for the wrong reasons.
Take our heroic lead played by Sam Heughan, with all the rumours and suggestions on a rotating basis that Heughan is one of the favourites to succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond, the film sorely does stick out as his audition tape. His character Tom Buckingham has most of the ingredients you see in Bond. Buckingham is a well-schooled gentleman, with a stately home and butler (which thankfully he doesn’t blow up), an excellent assassin and with zero remorse for the sheer amount of violence he causes. So, in essence, a Bond clone character. Honestly, coming out of Red Notice, I’m not 100% sold on the idea of Heughan as Bond. At times, he comfortably looks the part, he even does the Bond pose with the gun while stalking around the bad guys but, to me, he doesn’t have that attention-grabbing presence. He’s a competent action lead and does the best he can with the material here but it’s very hard to ignore the clear flag waving on offer here. If Heughan’s name wasn’t always being linked, like many other British actors, to the Bond role, this wouldn’t have been too distracting.
Heughan’s cause is not helped by the romantic plot points regarding his love interest, Dr Sophie Hart, played by Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and The Wasp). Again, while Heughan and John-Kamen do the best with the material, it really doesn’t help make them a believable couple. What starts off as an interesting conflicted relationship, Hart uneasy with how at ease Buckingham can feel just killing people for a living and trying to understand him, ultimately gets shrugged off by the finale in what is perhaps one of the worst romantic pep talks I’ve seen in ages. These characters are not a healthy couple and you’re still left scratching your head why on earth they are together. This really brings down the emotional stakes here.
All is not lost with the film thanks to the presence of Ruby Rose; who continues to add to her resume of evil as the main antagonist Grace Lewis. Having recently watched The Doorman, another action hostage thriller that has Rose as the heroic lead, she seems much more comfortable being a villain or treading in between. She clearly looks like she’s having fun as the cold-hearted remorseless leader of the villains and has a great showing in the final showdown with Heughan in a brutal woodland encounter.
In addition to Rose, there’s decent, reliable support from the supporting group of recognisable British actors. Andy Serkis sneers, leers and swears all over the place as the clearly untrustworthy aide to the Prime Minister. Tom Hooper, riding high in The Umbrella Academy, is the reliable best military buddy of Heughan’s lead. Noel Clarke is the gruff head of the SAS special ops division and Tom Wilkinson pops by for a bit of menace before being promptly dispatched in the first act of the film. They all help keep the film on course even when things aren’t necessarily working.
Is it a franchise starter for Sky? If they approach the film with the same intention with the budget, casting and sort out some of that terrible characterization work then absolutely. But I’m not one to be rushing back to rewatch SAS: Red Notice anytime soon. The casual action fan will find some distraction here for two hours but there’s nothing worth coming back for.
SAS: Red Notice (2021)
With a sturdy budget and effective cast behind it, SAS: Red Notice is one of Sky Cinema’s best original outings. However, it’s hard to ignore the Bond casting tape and the preposterous laughable romantic relationship. For the casual action fan, it’s good for a one-off Saturday night watch, nothing more.
Reviewed by Iain Boulton
SAS: Red Notice is available on Sky Cinema / NOW TV in the UK and on VOD for US audiences now.