OPERATION RED SEA (2018) review

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Just under a year and a half after the success of Operation Mekong, Dante Lam is back with Operation Red Sea, another bombastic extrapolation on real events. This time, the evacuation in 2015 of nearly six hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the Yemeni Civil War is spun into a hybrid of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, also closely resembling Wu Jing’s immensely successful Wolf Warrior II with its unbridled patriotism, tank battles and extraction of endangered Chinese citizens in Africa (though it doesn’t count as a rip-off, as it was already done shooting when Wu Jing’s film came out). And so we follow the Jiaolong Assault Team, headed by Captain Yang (Zhang Yi) and operating with the naval support of Captain Gao Yun (Zhang Hanyu, perhaps as the twin brother of his Operation Mekong character Gao Gang?), as it ventures into war-torn Yemen to rescue Chinese citizens – including fearless journalist Xia Nan (Christina Hai) – and foil a terrorist plot to obtain nuclear materials.

North of patriotism but south of propaganda, Operation Red Sea features its share of waving flags, shows of awe-inspiring Chinese military force, and elite soldiers running in slow motion towards their mission. But except for a weird, gratuitous naval coda that isn’t so much part of the story as it is a direct warning to those who would dare to raid the South China sea, it never really out-jingoists Hollywood’s output in the genre. Sure, the central team of elite soldiers is made up of fairly bland stalwarts who get precious few minutes to display any sort of personality, and the plot is a mechanical affair that seems constantly in a hurry to get to the action scenes, with a hackneyed terrorism subplot that uses a deal in nuclear materials to create an easy global stake (much like Simon West’s The Expendables 2 and many others). But when the action scenes are on the level displayed here, it’s easy to forgive the film for rushing to them.

Dante Lam’s didn’t just write, produce and direct Operation Red Sea, he also choreographed the action scenes, and he deserves awards gold for them. The opening scene, a Somali pirate attack (just like in Wolf Warrior II) where a sniper aboard a helicopter stops a pirate captain from escaping on a speedboat, wouldn’t be a shabby climax – but it’s merely a starter. There an explosive scene of urban warfare, a tense sniper stand-off in the desert, both superb set pieces, and yet still not a patch on what’s yet to come. For the pièce de résistance is a 35-minute bloodbath, a masterclass in action-directing that starts as a stealthy extraction scene, before erupting into a full-blown battle, constantly escalating until it involves dueling tanks, rapacious helicopters and a fearsome combat drone. And a sandstorm. If there’s a more impressive action scene in the rest of 2018, it will have been an amazing year for the genre. Lam doesn’t shy away from gruesome details, with graphic battle injuries: a soldier who fights on despite half his face having been torn off, a savage scuffle among indifferent goats, that ends with skull-stabbing, fingers dangling from hands… But it never becomes ridiculous or cartoonish, never devolves into self-indulgent gore. On the contrary, in depicting the horrors of war with unblinking intensity, Lam stops the film from becoming a glorified recruiting video, like the first Wolf Warrior or Li Chen’s Sky Hunter were.

There’s also a handful of moments of gut-wrenching emotion, such as Zhang Yi’s Captain Yang in tears after the battle, at the sight of his fallen soldiers. It’s a well-trodden scene, but an actor of Zhang’s caliber can make it fresh again. Among the rather bland team under Yang’s orders, Johnny Huang Jingyu gets a hopelessly cliché role as a cocky sniper, but Jiang Luxia is a clear stand-out: the martial artist graduates to affecting dramatic actress, with a stunningly fierce performance that also makes the most of a small romantic subplot. Christina Hai continues the regrettable trend of Chinese actors having to garble phonetic English, but fares infinitely better in Mandarin. Simon Yam pops in for a useless cameo, while Zhang Hanyu is omnipresent but limited to giving orders and providing stern exposition. A thrilling score by Elliot Leung complements the action perfectly.

Long Story Short: An impressive undertaking from Dante Lam, Operation Red Sea is thinly-written and at times heavy-handedly patriotic, but nevertheless a riveting and brutal spectacle with moments of gut-wrenching emotion. ***1/2

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7 Comments

  1. Hear, hear. I was hoping for something decent but now I’m excited!

    Reply
  2. That is indeed correct.

    Reply
  3. callmebyyourname

     /  March 8, 2018

    Hitting!It made me cry when the captain say”we are Chinese navy,and we are pick you up and go home”😭 I can’t explain why should I cry,maybe so sensual I am….. But the actor of sharp-shooter is sooo marvelous!!! Johnny Huang? right? I think Im fall in love with him😍 So charming he is! Alright,I just want to say the film is worth seeing!

    Reply

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