To save one single Chinese national held hostage in a war-torn African country, China’s navy sends an elite squad on an anti-terrorist mission the features so many explosions it’s like Operation Desert Storm squeezed into one day. Despite the premise’s similarity to “Wolf Warrior 2,” (China’s top-grossing film), Hong Kong action-director Dante Lam’s “Operation Red Sea” is war propaganda that comes off as antiwar, a patriotic film so carried away by its own visceral, pulverizing violence that patriotism almost becomes an afterthought. Military geeks and genre fans in overseas markets will be awestruck by the mind-blowing action, but domestic audiences expressed disappointment at the film’s downplaying of individual heroism and feel-good nationalism. Nevertheless, the movie has still placed second in box office among Chinese New Year blockbusters and doubled profits over Lam’s previous film “Operation Mekong.”
The closest Hollywood precedents of Lam’s biggest production to date are Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” and Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.” Not only are they films on terrorism shot in Morocco, all work hard to plunge viewers into a nerve-shattering, immersive experience. Lam’s production is just as overblown, with an ostentatious display of weaponry bordering on geekiness, and a graphic depiction of human casualties (such as stumps of limbless torsos) that manages to be as numbing as it is stomach-churning.
Since Lam stopped telling Hong Kong stories and targeted the huge mainland market, his ambitions have swelled with the astronomical budgets he can muster. Here, enjoying support from China’s navy, he devises the bloodiest and most propulsive battle scenes ever allowed on mainland screens (in Hong Kong the film is classified for over-18 audiences).
Sadly, his direction has become a lot more mechanical, and his characters have no emotional contours. Unlike Lin’s stylish police noirs “Beaststalker,” “The Stool Pigeon” or “That Demon Within,” neither the story nor characters have any moral ambiguity or psychological shadings. The physically capable cast, boasting illustrious backgrounds in military, martial arts or dance, all look indistinguishably rugged, but feeble attempts to give them touching moments, such as a soldier feeding candy to a jawless comrade, instead can play like an unintentional gag.
The screenplay by Lam, Feng Ji, Chen Zhuzhu and Eric Lin is so choppy and inchoate that goals, strategies and execution are one big blur, and protagonists appear to rush headlong into combat as aimlessly as flying shrapnel. Slam-bang cross-cutting by Choi Chi-chung and Lam Chi-hang convey lots of speed and action, yet the film feels interminable, stuck in an unvaried state of extremity and stress.
Jiaolong (Sea Dragon) is a special task force in the Chinese navy, first seen defending a cargo ship from pirates near Somalian waters. Then the captain receives orders to change course and help evacuate Chinese nationals from fictional North African country Yewaire, where civil war has broken out.
The evacuation goes smoothly, with Chinese kids walking in neat procession waving little red flags as they board the ship, as if they’ve just come from a national day parade rather than having just escaped a military coup. Howevcr, compared with “Wolf Warrior 2,” in which the Chinese flag draws instant jubilation and adulation from Africans, this is a false calm before the storm. Indeed, Deng Mei, a Chinese embassy staffer, has been captured by the rebels together with local officials. The captain (Zhang Hanyu in a stiff cameo) sends all eight members of the Jiaolong to retrieve her at all costs.
This is a cue to let slip the dogs of war, starting with savage firefights that move from wrecked buildings onto chaotic streets, the volley of ammo so stunningly diverse, powerful and indiscrimate that it’s impossible to take stock of human outcome. On a dusty road, a van in which Deng is riding is ambushed by the terrorsit group Zaka. Any attempt by the audience to make sense of the situation is blown to smithereens by explosion after deafening explosion. Korean action films used to lead the pack in Asia for pyrotechnics, and even though the special effects in this film are largely handled by Korean studios, the territorial crown must be surrendered to Chinese megabusters for the amount of money they can burn. There’s a perverse wonder at the massive bomb clouds rising into mid-air before bursting, like fireworks, into a golden shimmer.
Jiaolong’s leader (Zhang Yi) picks up survivor Xia Nan (Christine Hai Qing, overdoing the hard-assed reporter schtick), a French-Chinese journalist on the trail of Yellowcake, a formula for chemical weapons. When they penetrate Zaka’s stronghold in a secluded village, it’s eight Chinese against 150 armed-to-the-teeth terrorists.
Unlike the Rambo-like kickass exploits in “Wolf Warrior 2,” this mission is filmed as collective action, each soldier desperately trying to make it through the nonstop battle. Their assignment evokes pathos rather than glory in a blood-soaked defense that finds the Chinese platoon cornered at a dead end in a town square. The fighting is orchestrated from a dazzling array of angles, and vicious types of assault. Upstaging a later bombastic battle of tanks in the desert, the town square scene potently harks back to Lam’s earlier, better films in which protagonists, whether cop or criminal, are trapped like animals, attaining tragic stature through a primal will to survive. Here, the take-no-prisoners approach on both sides is harrowing. The cameras linger on every finger blown off, every squirt of blood when a bullet hits the jugular, every leg lopped off, every facial disfiguration that stirs discomfort.
Covering Morocco’s imposing mountainous and desert terrain, Lam, who doubles as action director, makes use of the high altitude vantage points to stage some terrific sniping sequences. Music by Elliot Leung is surprisingly subdued and subtly elegiac by mainland blockbuster standards. Instead of using an orchestral score for major setpiece, the movie often holds back to let the fantastic, roaring sound mix do the work. As in all of Lam’s works, overall tech credits are of a very high level.