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Lift Movie Review: Globetrotting heist takes flight

Can Kevin Hart’s new sky high heist movie soar? We review the Netflix film Lift, a caper 40,000 feet in the air. 

*This review contains spoilers for the Netflix movie Lift.*

Lift is a high-stakes, high-altitude globetrotting heist that’s as smooth as a jet engine. The movie has wings and features an ultra-slick ensemble cast and stunning international destinations. Although the action doesn’t take off in parts, the film is still worth checking out. 

Lift is the story of a group of thieves, led by Kevin Hart’s Cyrus Whitaker. They are tasked by Interpol, represented by Agent Blackwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), to steal half a billion in gold bullion from a plane from a violent financial terrorist before he can cause mayhem on Earth for his greedy gains. It’s a heist movie on a plane, but it would be very unfair to liken Lift to a high-budget remake of Money Plane, because it is so much more. 

Lift is based on a 2021 script that was on the Blacklist – the place where you can find what are essentially the most exciting unproduced scripts. Argo, American Hustle, and Slumdog Millionaire were all Blacklist scripts before they were bought and went off to make movie history. Because of their track record, scripts on the annual Blacklist generate lots of hype in the industry. Lift’s original script was called Gold Plane, and it was written by Daniel Kunka (12 Rounds and the upcoming Yellowstone Falls). On the advice of his reps, Kunka changed the title, and then the rest was Blacklist hype history.

The spec script that ended up on the Blacklist versus what was actually produced and that we see with this Netflix release is quite different, but it’s still a compelling heist story. Lift’s original concept had a female thief and male FBI ex-boyfriend working together to steal $100 million. Netflix’s movie has Kevin Hart as the thief and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the now Interpol agent, and a whole lot more gold bullion.

Kevin Hart as Cyrus, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Abby and Billy Magnussen as Magnus in a still from Lift
(L to R) Kevin Hart as Cyrus, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Abby and Billy Magnussen as Magnus in Lift. (Netflix © 2023)

The story never suffers from jet lag – it’s solidly paced, and the gorgeous locales and direction by F. Gary Gray help elevate it. Gray’s influence, honed during heist movies like The Italian Job and the action film The Fate of the Furious, is really apparent in the best way with Lift’s visual style. There are no mini-coopers with Charlize Theron in Lift, but there are boats, canals, and, of course, planes – some of questionable airworthiness. Cinematographer Bernhard Jasper paints with light to make places like Venice pop on screen with a ton of vibrancy. 

The plane work, as you’d expect in a movie about an air heist, is really impressive, and the VFX work was worthy of its turn at 40,000 feet. Although Lift has a character at the heart of the story, the filmmakers don’t shy away from going big with the movie’s premise. Not only is there action outside in the air, including NATO fighters, a scrappy former NASA experimental plane, and a big honking A380, but there’s a lot of action inside the planes, too. There’s also a big air crash landing (that everyone walks away from!), and it seems like air disasters are having their moment at Netflix and in Hollywood – just ask J.A. Bayona what went into the harrowing crash in Society of the Snow

Lift is also billed as an action movie, but the action of this flick is a bit turbulent and bumpy. It’s situational action (not like the “situational” relationship between Ben and Bea in Anyone But You) that never quite climbs to believable heights. There are some standout moments, notably with a few of the fight scenes inside planes (surprise!). One sequence in particular inside the first-class upper deck had me cheering for Mbatha-Raw’s Agent Blackwell because of how much butt she was kicking. 

Overall, the acting is solid – and you’d expect that from a cast of the caliber involved in the production. Not only are Kevin Hart and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the movie, but Vincent D’Onofrio is in an extremely different role than we’ve seen him lately. Given that Lift is being released the same week as Marvel’s Echo, where D’Onofrio reprises his role of Kingpin, it’s enough to give you whiplash but also show how skillful of an actor he is to pull off that range. 

Rounding out the cast of Lift is Sam Worthington as Huxley, the Interpol agent who is, well, not great. There’s also Úrsula Corberó as Camila, Billy Magnussen as Magnus, and Yun Jee Kim in her American debut. Jacob Batalon (Spiderman: Homecoming and Spiderman: No Way Home) pops up, too, as a mysterious masked NFT artist. Burn Gorman is Cormac, one of the film’s bad guys, and he owns that role. Seeing him in Lift makes me wish for his series Forever, where he played opposite Ioan Gruffudd and Judd Hirsch and was such an amazing villain.

Tonally, Hart’s character gives off more smart playboy vibes, à la Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown in The Thomas Crown Affair, and not so much scheming criminal mastermind vibes. Hart’s Whitaker has an appreciation for art, but it’s not a religion like it is for Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey in White Collar. He likes the finer things in life – and the film gives us all FOMO by showing a unique swimming pool suspended in the air between two buildings in London. 

Cyrus Whitaker’s motivations for his life of thievery are unclear, but that’s okay – we don’t need to know them. It’s not a lingering question you ponder as the movie progresses. The script and filmmakers do an excellent job at making us like Hart’s Whitaker by showing his loyalty to his motley team and his motivation for the greater good in his agreement to steal the gold to stop the Leviathan transfer in the first place. Whitaker is a good guy – he fights terrorists! Sure, Whitaker was given an impossible mission by Interpol and chose to accept it, but by doing so, it will have all of his, and more importantly, his team’s past misdeeds expunged by accepting the…Interpol’s offer. 

Lift: Movie Trailer (Netflix)

And because of Kevin Hart’s charisma on screen, you believe this team could be loyal. Whitaker has made them all fabulously rich, and he also cares about them as people. They’re a well-oiled thievery machine. On a broader note, this is a much different performance for Hart than his previous action movies. He’s not layering in the comedy like with Dwayne Johnson in the buddy comedy Central Intelligence or in Ride Along with Ice Cube. Still, he delivers a much slicker and controlled performance. His character very much anchors the film, and you see much of that come into play with the back and forth with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Agent Blackwell.

Mbatha-Raw is fresh off an ultra-successful run on season two of Marvel’s Loki, where she played TVA Judge (and really, so much more) Ravonna Renslayer. She was phenomenal in LiftLIFT as Agent Blackwell and totally sold the character’s love/hate relationship with Whitaker. It was also super satisfying to see her in a strong role where she kicked butt. In addition to the awesome action and sheer competency that’s, again, satisfying to see on screen, Mbatha-Raw conveys emotional depth with what Blackwell has endured.

As far as heist movie tropes go, Lift has them and also subverts them. It cleverly ticks all the boxes to scratch that heist itch. The movie is a “one last score” situation, and they’re given an impossible task. There’s a healthy amount of time spent with the team preparing and getting ready for the heist – because, as with any good heist movie, that’s half the fun. There are gadgets! There’s assembling the elements! (And planes, and safe cracking, and getaway vehicles, oh my.) Something also goes wrong during the heist. Another common trope in heist movies involves a team member betraying the team. Unlike in heist classic A Fish Called Wanda, this doesn’t happen in Lift. But a character in the story has a sudden and potentially catastrophic change of heart. We even get to see the happy ending at the movie’s end, thus satisfying the aftermath expectation with heist films. Lift is also brought into the modern age quite a bit by featuring a very well-choreographed digital theft of an NFT. 

Overall, Lift is a fun film with beautiful scenery, but you probably won’t get any frequent flyer miles or first-class upgrades out of any rewatches. Enjoy the smooth air and give the movie a try.

Lift will be available to stream globally on Netflix on January 12, 2024.

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