Operation Red Sea (红海行动) movie review

For inSing

OPERATION RED SEA  (红海行动)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Zhang Hanyu, Jiang Luxia, Fang Yin, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, Henry Mak
Genre : Action
Run Time : 2h 18m
Opens : 15 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Gore And Violence)

With the record-breaking box office success of Wolf Warrior 2, Chinese filmgoing audiences have further demonstrated an appetite for over-the-top, nationalistic action films. Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, a showcase for the Chinese Navy, aims to feed that appetite.

The film centres on a unit of the elite Jiaolong (Sea Dragon) assault team. The team is lead by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), and its members include sniper Gu Shun (Huang Jingyu), gunner Tong Li (Luxia Jiang), Zhang Tiande (Yutian Wang) and Tong Li (Luxia Jiang).

After a successful mission rescuing the crew of a Chinese cargo ship from Somali pirates off the Gulf of Aden, the Jiaolong unit is sent into the North African nation of Yewaire. A coup in Yewaire has left the terrorist organisation Zaka with control of the nation. Among the hostages being held by Zaka are Chinese citizens. The Jiaolong team must rescue the hostages and prevent Zaka from getting their hands on yellowcake uranium to make dirty bombs.

 

Lam’s previous film, 2016’s Operation Mekong, was a bombastic action adventure that featured elaborately-staged action sequences, showcased Chinese military might and claimed to be based on a true story. Operation Red Sea ups the ante in the same aspects but is so overblown and bloated it paradoxically ends up less entertaining than Operation Mekong was. Operation Red Sea takes the loosest inspiration from the real-life evacuation of hundreds of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen by the Chinese Navy in 2015.

There isn’t even the slightest effort made to disguise Operation Red Sea’s reason for existence: as a long recruitment film for the Chinese Navy. Just as the 2017 film Sky Hunter was made with the cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Chinese Navy is portrayed in only the most glorious, flattering light in Operation Red Sea. It’s akin to how Michael Bay idolises the military in his films, since that’s how he gains access to the latest hardware.

Operation Red Sea, like Operation Mekong, Sky Hunter, Wolf Warrior and other recent military action films that have come out of China, is patterned after the jingoistic Hollywood blockbusters of the 80s like Rambo and Top Gun. This is interesting because China ostensibly sits at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum, and yet we get flag-waving accompanied by innumerable explosions.

The sheer scale of the spectacle here is astounding. The production values are high, and it looks like the production took over the whole of Morocco to shoot Operation Red Sea. This reviewer’s favourite action sequence is a ridiculous tank chase in which our heroes are pursued across the desert as a sandstorm closes in on them, and they’re firing artillery rounds at the enemy tanks.

Despite the technical competence and resources on display, it’s easy to tune out during the action sequences because they’re so numbing. The major battles in the city are so chaotic that they’re difficult to follow. A good action sequence should have its own mini-narrative, its own three-act structure. Lots of cars flipping over, soldiers traversing between buildings on ziplines, and high-calibre gunfire raining down from helicopters sounds exciting, but when it’s all mashed together in an indistinguishable mass, it just becomes enervating.

You’ll notice we haven’t discussed any of the characters at length, because there isn’t much to discuss. Operation Red Sea isn’t interested in any of the journeys of its characters, who mostly exist to operate machinery. The only character who stands out is plucky journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing), but even then, she’s a stock type. It’s difficult to care when characters get horribly maimed, and even for an action movie, the gore seems excessive. Emotional scenes are melodramatic and unintentionally funny.

The villains are stereotypical in every way. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to panic any time they hear dialogue in Arabic, and Operation Red Sea sticks to this dictum. The whole thing plays like a Call of Duty-style video game, and the terrorist forces serve as hordes of faceless enemies to mow down.

While military action blockbusters are more in this reviewer’s wheelhouse than the typical comedies released during Chinese New Year, Operation Red Sea is difficult to recommend. While some might enjoy its chest-thumping patriotism and deafening, bombastic violence, Operation Red Sea will wear other less resilient audiences down.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Operation Mekong (湄公河行動)

For F*** Magazine

OPERATION MEKONG (湄公河行動)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Feng Wenjuan, Pawarith Monkolpisit, Zhao Jian, Liu Xianda, Zhan Liguo, Jonathan Wu
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 4min
Opens : 6 October 2016
Rating : NC16 (Drug Use and Violence)

operation-mekong-posterDirector Dante Lam takes us downriver in this action thriller inspired by actual events. On the morning of October 5th 2011, two Chinese cargo ships were ambushed on the Mekong river, with all 13 crew members aboard both vessels killed. 900 000 meth pills are later recovered. In retaliation, the Chinese government dispatches a team of elite narcotics officers, led by Captain Gao Gang (Zhang), to the Golden Triangle. The region, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, is a notorious drug trade hotbed. Intelligence agent Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), formerly a narcotics officer and now based in the Golden Triangle, joins Gao’s crew. Their undercover investigation discovers that the attack was masterminded by drug lord Naw Khar (Monkolpisit). The governments of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China launch a joint task force to capture Naw Khar, igniting a fierce battle that sets the Golden Triangle ablaze.

operation-mekong-boat-action-scene

Lam is not a director known for his subtlety. The behind-the-scenes footage of The Viral Factor reveals that he fires a pistol into the air before calling “action” to get himself hyped up. Not even Michael Bay does that. We find ourselves in a bit of catch-22 with Operation Mekong: on one hand, Lam ostensibly wants to pay his respects to the 13 victims of the Mekong River attack, dedicating the film to them and listing the deceased by name. On the other, he wants to make this as explosive a high-octane extravaganza of bullets, explosions and blood splatter as he can. We’ve got shootouts galore, chases on land, water and in the air and some pretty brutal knife-fighting too. Lam has plenty of flair, and while some of his stylistic flourishes come off as unnecessary, the flashiness and dynamism do keep things very exciting.

operation-mekong-gao-gang-2

The problem here is that Lam doesn’t seem aware that one can’t quite get away with typical over-the-top genre hijinks in a film that is purportedly based on a true story. One factor that makes the macho 80s action flicks starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and stars of their ilk so entertaining is that we know it’s not meant to reflect reality. Audiences cheer when the hero utters a zinger after the bad guy is blown to bits, with the knowledge that this is silly and that’s fine. Lam claims to have undertaken three years of research and preparation to do the story justice. The scenarios depicted are so overblown, with the characters hewing so closely to established action movie tropes, that we’d be surprised if even 10% of the actual events went down the way it’s depicted in the movie.

Standing in the way of any credibility is how much this feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of the aftermath of the Mekong River attack. It’s like the direct result of someone watching a hundred action movies and then being turned loose to write one of his own. The elite team’s codenames are all figures from ancient Greek mythology – naturally, ‘Panoptes’ is the tech guy in charge of surveillance drones. Panoptes was the giant with a hundred eyes, get it? It’s a screenwriter’s conceit if there ever was one.

operation-mekong-eddie-peng

Lam evidently seems to enjoy working with Peng, who starred in the director’s previous films Unbeatable and To the Fore. The character is the inside man who has taken up a post far away from home to get away from a tragic occurrence in his recent past. When said event is revealed, it’s almost unbelievably cliché. Peng’s very pretty visage is adorned with a hilarious assortment of fake facial hair, as part of Xinwu’s disguises.

operation-mekong-gao-gang

Zhang is appropriately gruff and steadfast as the team leader, a ‘father to his men’ type. In an attempt to give the character pathos, we see him forlornly watching video calls sent from his young daughter. There isn’t a lot of characterisation given to the other team members – for example, Joyce Feng Wenjuan’s Aphrodite is ‘the female one’, and that’s about it. The villains are every bit as exaggerated as one might expect: we even get a scene of a crazed drug lord stuffing a fistful of cocaine into his face in frustration, just before his base is attacked. The villains are all adequately despicable and we witness some ghastly atrocities, but they’re nearly as cartoonish as the Golden Triangle drug traffickers depicted in Tropic Thunder.

The standout performer is Bingo the German Shepherd. Yes, there’s a team pet. Animal-lovers, be prepared to wince as the dog finds itself in the thick of some pretty harrowing situations.

Speaking of atrocities, child soldiers figure heavily into the plot. This reviewer did feel pretty uncomfortable watching two kids play Russian Roulette in a ‘Deer Hunter Jr.’-type scene. Real-life drug lords do enslave child soldiers, but a topic like that needs to be handled with some sensitivity and feels quite out of place in a rip-roaring actioner.

Location filming and elaborately-staged action sequences indicate that a fair bit of effort was put into Operation Mekong. This reviewer was entertained by the big action set-pieces, notably a deal gone horribly awry in a crowded shopping mall. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lam would have been better off making a wholly fictional film, instead of sticking “based on a true story” onto this balls-out shoot ‘em up bombast.

Summary: Action junkies will be satiated, but everything in Operation Mekong is so overblown that it flies straight past ‘taking artistic license’ into the realm of the patently ludicrous.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong