Film Review: Operation Red Sea

Elite soldiers on a mission to free hostages also take on a terrorist "dirty bomb" plot in a big-budget Chinese adventure.
Specialty Releases

Hong Kong action wiz Dante Lam struck gold with 2016's Operation Mekong, a close-to-real-life movie that combined Chinese patriotism with high-octane action. His follow-up, Operation Red Sea, is closer in spirit to Wolf Warrior 2, China's reigning box-office champ.

Operation Red Sea opens with a 20-minute pre-credits sequence in which members of the elite Jiaolong Assault Team thwart a pirate attack on a container cargo freighter in the Sea of Aden. Lam, who also wrote the movie and directed the action choreography, hits all the expected bases: hostages, helicopters, drones, boats, x-ray smartphones, snipers, night-vision goggles and bombs, stitched together with adrenalized pacing and superior stunts.

The movie morphs into an account of a hostage rescue after a coup in the fictional Middle East country Yewaire. Led by Captain Yang Rue (Zhang Yi), the eight-member assault team must protect the hostages from both rebel insurgents and "Zaka" terrorists.

The mission was similar in Wolf Warrior 2, but the real inspiration here seems to be Black Hawk Down. Lam's sense of scale and logistics are remarkable, with scenes unfolding across a war-ravaged city cross-cut with tense desert showdowns. Individual stunts are outstanding, like the zip lines snipers use to set up rooftop shooting sites. And despite some obvious effects, the crashes and explosions are far more ferocious than Hollywood offerings.

Unfortunately, the characters are pretty generic. There's a rookie soldier who doubts his courage, a tough-as-nails female with a heart of gold, an arrogant sniper who learns to appreciate his spotter. Captain Yang is all business, even when it means sacrificing his team. And of course that business is to do anything and everything to help the Chinese cause.

But for the most part, Operation Red Sea avoids the in-your-face jingoism that's been a hallmark of recent Chinese releases. Lam is more interested in upping the odds against his soldiers. Flat tires, a mortar ambush, an enemy sniper, a terrorist double-cross and dozens more enemy assailants than expected keep the Jiaolong Assault Team on their toes.

They take a while to arrive, but Lam eventually offers up some of his typically insane stunts. In one chase, a car flips upside-down onto the roof of another, drivers and passengers shooting through windows as the vehicles hurtle down an alley. Later, tanks fire point-blank at each other while a sandstorm rages around them. The skill and ingenuity of the action set-pieces are phenomenal and exhausting at the same time.

Operation Red Seahas been performing well in the Chinese New Year box-office race, where it is screening in IMAX 3D. Its main support in the U.S. will be from action fans who appreciate Lam's expertise.

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