One of the greatest challenges of my professional life was trying to convince people that Ryan Reynolds could be a good actor. The coming-of-age movie Adventureland was one of the buzzier titles going into the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and it turned out to be good enough to cause some critics to revisit their dismissive assessments of its young star, Kristen Stewart, after the previous year’s Twilight. But selling hardened festivalgoers on the idea that Reynolds might be more than the boundlessly cocky hero of Van Wilder seemed like a bridge too far. But after a few abortive attempts, I finally arrived at a framing that they were able to believe: Actually, he’s kind of playing an asshole.
Earlier this year, HuffPost called Reynolds “Hollywood’s most likeable star,” and a glowing recent profile in the Wall Street Journal paints him as just about the nicest guy you could hope to meet, a hardworking, happily married father of three finally enjoying some hard-won success and using what he calls his “position of unspeakable privilege” to help diversify the industry he has conquered. But playing nice guys on-screen has not worked out well for him. For a good-looking white man with a chiseled body and quick, dirty wit, Reynolds’ path to stardom has been a surprisingly bumpy one—as well as one with, frankly, more bites at the apple than someone who looks less like Hollywood’s idea of a star might have gotten. There were romantic comedies (Just Friends, The Proposal) and action movies (Smokin’ Aces, R.I.P.D.), not to mention a string of uninspired comic book movies culminating in the franchise-killing Green Lantern. What they had in common was the smirk. No matter how hard Reynolds tried to come across as a good-hearted hero—like the hapless assistant dragooned into a green card marriage by Sandra Bullock’s Canadian book editor in The Proposal—Reynolds couldn’t help but radiate a certain smarminess. It was as if he’d already watched the movie and knew you were going to end up having to like him, whether you wanted to or not.
Deadpool changed all that. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds’ first take on the character has literally had the smirk wiped off his face, with a knotted mass of scar tissue where his mouth ought to be. But when Reynolds returned to the character in 2016, both the mouth and the smirk were back, with a vengeance. Reynolds’ “merc with a mouth” is incessantly, almost insufferably, quippy, pelting the audience with jokes when there’s no one else around to hear them. He’s ingratiating and exhausting at the same time, but he’s also deeply damaged, both psychologically and physically. The character wears a bodysuit and mask for much of the movie, and when it’s peeled away, we see that his body is covered with scars, a side effect of the treatment that gives the foulmouthed anti-hero his superpowers. The movie was a massive hit, earning $782 million worldwide and upending conventional wisdom about the commercial viability of R-rated movies.
In the WSJ profile, Reynolds, who was nearing 40 when he made Deadpool, says he knew his window for movie stardom was beginning to close, and that movie was his last, best chance. He converted by seizing on a crucial insight. Rather than futilely trying to suppress his inherent smarm, Reynolds leaned into it. He made it his thing. And because the string of cheeky one-liners was coming from a scarred, masked freak, it was tolerable, even enjoyable, in a way it wasn’t coming from a guy who looked like he was about to steal your prom date (or, more to the point, like he’d been married to Scarlett Johansson and is currently married to Blake Lively). Reynolds couldn’t hide his pretty face in every movie, of course—although he had two more hits by staying off-screen in The Croods and Detective Pikachu—but he made up for it by turning himself into a human punching bag. In the Hitman’s Bodyguard series—the 2017 hit and this summer’s souped-up sequel—and in Netflix’s 6 Underground and its new Red Notice, out Friday, he’s an international man of mystery, enjoying all of the comforts that massive wealth affords and endlessly sure of his own skills. But he’s also, as Samuel L. Jackson puts it in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, “the most annoying motherfucker on planet Earth.” It’s barely 15 minutes into Red Notice when Dwayne Johnson tells Reynolds, “You know, I’m really starting to not like you.”
The thing about Reynolds’ characters in these movies is that they have earned their cockiness, up to a point. His personal security specialist in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is world-renowned, and in Red Notice, he has a plausible claim to being “the world’s second-most-wanted jewel thief.” But that slight distance from the top eats away at them, and it lets us watch them with affection instead of resentment. The underlying joke of Free Guy, the summer hit in which Reynolds plays a video game character who achieves sentience, is that he’s so perfect he might have been programmed instead of born, but when that character gets punched in his pretty face, the split in his nose looks awfully real. Taken in total, Reynolds’ willingness to subject himself to these on-screen humiliations feels less like a lack of vanity and more like a deliberate strategy. He knows we want to see him taken down a peg, if only one.
In the 1930s, Katharine Hepburn’s career hit a major snag when the strong, self-determined women she played on-screen started to strike some audiences (or at least the theater owners who served them) as arrogant. Her comeback vehicle, first on Broadway and then on screen, was The Philadelphia Story, in which she again plays a strong, self-determined woman—but paired this time with an even stronger and more self-determined man, who at one point grabs her by the face and shoves her to the ground. The ritual humiliations that became a part of her films after that can seem ugly, even cruel from a modern perspective, but in a sense they allowed everyone to win. For most of the movie, viewers who wanted to see Hepburn be forceful and sharp-witted got just that, while the ones who wanted to see her put back in her place knew they had only to wait. But the real winner was Hepburn herself, who went on to some of the biggest hits of her career.
Although he was never formally declared “box office poison” the way Hepburn was (in an ad taken out by the president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America, no less), Reynolds has pulled much the same trick. He’s taken the core of what never quite clicked for him on screen, the puppy-dog desperation that leads to him showing up on set with a fistful of alts for every joke, and made it work for rather than against him. It can’t save a movie as bad as Red Notice, which has the stink of movie stars counting their $20 million paychecks and coasting on charm. But you can see the wheels turning more clearly because of how little else there is going on. Reynolds’ character is a disloyal trickster, always trying to pull a fast one on Johnson’s government agent and Gal Gadot’s competing art thief (the one who keeps him as the world’s second most wanted). But he’s never quite as smart as he thinks he is, and part of the enjoyment of watching him slip out of a trap is knowing he’s about to step into an even bigger one. He keeps dusting himself off and getting knocked on his ass, and you never get tired of watching him fall.