Director: Dante Lam
Cast: Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Jiang Luxia, Yin Fang, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, Henry Mak, Zhang Hanyu
Runtime: 2 hrs 18 mins
Rating: M18 (Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, Clover Films
Opening Day: 15 February 2018
Synopsis: The Chinese Navy’s Jiaolong (“Sea Dragon”) Assault Team is famed for its skill in getting the job done. After its success in rescuing a cargo ship hijacked by pirates off the Somalia coast, the team is assigned an even more perilous mission. A coup in a North African republic has left local Chinese residents in danger, circumstances further complicated by a terrorist plot to obtain nuclear materials. The situation could prove fatal to the hostages and disastrous to the entire region, and presents Jiaolong with a challenge that threatens the very existence of the team and its members.
Like Wu Jing’s ‘Wolf Warrior 2’, ‘Operation Red Sea’ is loosely based on the Chinese evacuation of nearly 600 Chinese citizens and 225 foreign nationals from the port city of Aden during the 2015 Yemen civil war. Unlike that surprise box-office phenomenon though, it isn’t one person who is responsible for the entire mission but an elite team of soldiers known as the Jiaolong Assault Team. An extended opening sequence which sees the team rescue the Chinese crew of the Guangdong cargo ship seized by Somalian pirates demonstrates the skill, precision and bravery of each one of its members, while providing a cursory title card introduction to their names and roles – including team leader Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), demolitions expert Xu Hong (Jiang Du), machine gunners Tong Li (Jiang Luxia) and Zhang Tiande (Wang Yutian), and last but not least signaller Zhuang Yu (Henry Prince Mak).
As conceived by Hong Kong action maestro Dante Lam, the titular operation begins with an all-out civil war in the fictional African country of Yewaire, instigated by terrorist elements keen on exploiting the unrest to get their hands on nuclear material. In order to rescue the 100-plus Chinese nationals trapped inside, the Chinese government sends the naval frigate Linyi to the country’s port, and the ship’s captain Gao Yun (Zhang Hanyu) further dispatches the Jiaolong team to escort the consul and some other Chinese citizens with him to safety. Alas two others are still trapped behind enemy lines – the French-Chinese reporter Xia Nan (Christina Hai) investigating the corrupt scientist at an energy plant who holds both the raw materials and the technology to make ‘dirty bombs’, and a female employee Deng Mei (Huang Fenfen) who happens to work at the aforementioned plant – so no sooner have they extracted the consul and his convoy are they sent deep within rebel territory in the desert to retrieve both Xia Nan and Deng Mei.
Like his thematic predecessor ‘Operation Mekong’, Lam approaches the narrative as a device to string together a series of balls-to-the-wall action sequences, so there’s hardly any point trying to point out the gaps, inconsistencies or even loopholes. Broadly speaking, there are four huge ones here – the first in the middle of the city with heavy street fighting between Government troops and rebel troops; the second in a valley in the desert where the Jiaolong are ambushed, out-numbered and out-gunned; the third in a rural countryside town where the Jiaolong disguise themselves as rebels to reach Deng Mei; and the final one in the wide open desert where four of the remaining Jiaolong members attempt to seize the dangerous bomb-ready ‘yellowcake’ to avoid it falling into terrorist hands. Each single sequence, staged and choreographed by Lam himself, has its own unique distinction, so you won’t ever find them repetitive.
Oh yes, there is sheer ambition and imagination in Lam’s envisioning and execution of these elaborate military-versus-militia battles, which are so intensely filmed that you’ll find yourself gripping your seats from start to finish. The first street war has the Jiaolong crossing over rooftops and trying to remove a makeshift bomb strapped around the neck of an innocent civilian, while the next one in the desert valley sees the Jiaolong come under mortar fire and playing a cat-and-mouse game with an enemy sniper. The best of the lot is arguably that of the stealth rescue mission, which not only sees the team being forced to improvise as their initial plans unravel, but also confront the loss of some of their members in combat. It also culminates in some truly jaw-dropping tank-on-tank action, with no less than a sandstorm thrown in for good measure. Alas their final big action sequence pales in comparison with the rest, not least because it feels rushed (and therefore seemingly too easily won) and because it lacks the ingenuity and pacing of the earlier ones. Still, there is absolutely no doubt by the end of the two-hour plus duration that Lam has reached a new zenith in his oeuvre, with this latest representing his most accomplished action movie to date.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it is his best – as with his earlier Operation, this one forsakes plot and character work for all-out spectacle. What passes for characterisation is a self-confident sniper Gu Shun (Johnny Huang) teaching his ‘watcher’ Li Dong (Fang Yin) how to steel his nerves, a quirk that Tiande has since childhood around sweets, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss romance between Tiande and Tong Li. It is somewhat ironic that the most defined character is not one of the Jiaolong but Xia Nan, whose reason for her apparent disregard of her safety is revealed in an affecting flashback involving her late husband and child. Though Lam has proven himself to be the Michael Bay of Chinese cinema with his two latest Operations, we’d actually prefer his earlier morally ambiguous cops-versus-robbers thrillers to these Mainland-centric films.
To Lam’s credit though, ‘Operation Red Sea’ is a lot less jingoistic than we were expecting it to be, especially given that one of the production studios is the Chinese military’s P.L.A. Navy Government TV Art Central of China. Sure, there is still the message of how its military stands ready to protect its citizens abroad (or defend its territorial waters), but by and large, this is a modern-day war movie more than it is a propaganda video (which is more than we can say for ‘Wolf Warrior 2’). Much emphasis has been paid to keep it real, authentic and raw, which in turn means it does get pretty violent and gory at times though never gratuitous. This is the very equivalent of ‘Black Hawk Down’ – gritty, tense and thrilling war cinema – so if you need a dose of adrenaline, get ready for a shot to the heart.
(Undoubtedly the most accomplished action movie from Dante Lam, 'Operation Red Sea' is balls-to-the-wall modern-day war spectacle that's gritty, intense and thrilling to watch)
Review by Gabriel Chong