In 2011, two Chinese commercial boats were attacked by Burmese pirates on the Mekong river, while passing through the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s biggest hotbeds of drug production, situated at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Thirteen Chinese sailors were summarily executed at gunpoint then dumped in the river, while 900,000 methamphetamine pills were found on the scene of the killings. The following investigation and hunt for the man responsible for the massacre, a ruthless drug lord called Naw Khar, is the main narrative thrust of Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong, which follows a team of elite narcotics officers led by Captain Gao (Zhang Hanyu), joined by Fang (Eddie Peng), an intelligence officer who’s been operating in the Golden Triangle for a few years. They soon discover that the drugs were planted by Naw Khar on the Chinese ships, and endeavor to bring him to justice, at the price of many lives.
There has been rumblings that the Thai government might ban Operation Mekong in Thailand for its potentially incriminating portrayal of the Thai military. The issue should be moot roughly 10 minutes after they start watching the film. This is not a carefully researched look at the hunt for the criminal responsible for a national tragedy, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Nor is it a sharp, nuanced look at the war on drugs like Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. No, Operation Mekong is to the aftermath of the 2011 Mekong River Massacre what Rambo: First Blood Part II is to the aftermath of the Vietnam war: highly unrealistic emotional and national payback. The ins and outs of the massacre and its geopolitical and criminal ramifications are presented in the first 10 minutes, as a series of narrative bullet points, in perfunctory vignettes with on-the-nose expositional dialogue. Then the two main characters are introduced: Gao and Wang are paper-thin heroes, defined only by the charisma of the actors who play them, and given only some quick and basic background: one has a daughter he doesn’t see much, the other lost his girlfriend. A bewigged Ken Lo and a slimy Carl Ng bring enjoyably villainous support that ups the film’s caricatural dimension.
At no point does Dante Lam try to bring any shades of factual truth or even basic subtlety to his film. There’s no doubt Burmese drug lord Naw Khar was an evil man, but he’s portrayed as a man so outrageously grotesque and inhuman it’s hard to take him seriously: he grabs heroin by the handful and snorts it angrily, he laughs maniacally as child soldiers blow their brains out at Russian roulette, he glowers intensely, calling the jungle his kingdom… Some of this might be true, but the accumulation of theatrical villain tropes quickly veers into cartoonish excess. Elsewhere, there’s Mission: Impossible-type set-ups with elaborate make-up and wigs, Matrix-worthy action beats (oh how we’ve missed you, “perfect aim while shooting from a swerving car”), and Fast & Furious-ready set pieces, (a henchman escapes by stealing a luxury car in a mall). Slow-motion and power anthems accompany the Chinese heroes, who make narrow helicopter escapes and close-call explosion-dodging.
Still, if one can accept that Dante Lam has turned a recent tragedy into his audition tape to get hired to direct The Expendables 4, it’s possible to enjoy Operation Mekong for what it is: one of the very best action films of the year. There are three main set pieces: a breathless foot chase through a market and a train station that turns to a spectacular car chase, a mall shootout with a devastating outcome, and last but not least, the assault on Naw Khar’s jungle lair and subsequent boat chase on the Mekong, a glorious 25-minute finale that makes Dante Lam’s previous action blockbuster, Viral Factor, look like a sleepy Woody Allen chamber piece. Henry Lai’s score enhances the action with gripping fugues and restless bombast, while veteran action director Tung Wei deserves his sixth Hong Kong Film Award for best action, or at the very least his eleventh nomination. Zhang Hanyu provides the film with a sturdy, immaculately charismatic center ; too bad his role is a cardboard cutout. His chemistry with a fine Eddie Peng is passable, though again this not a film that is interested in its characters. Well, except for one: Bingo the German Shepherd, who’s part of the Chinese police team, and steals almost every scene he’s in.
Long Story Short: Operation Mekong is one of the best and most enjoyable pure action films of the year, if one can accept that Dante Lam has turned a national tragedy into a balls-to-the-wall revenge film. ***1/2