Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
War Isn't a Yellow Cake Walk
Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea is no Operation Mekong despite what the marketing may try to lead you to believe. Operation Red Sea is in no way a sequel to Operation Mekong, but is more or less another film by Dante Lam that is similar in style. Operation Red Sea is advertised as China’s first modern naval film and is a celebration of the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese People's Liberation Army and the party's 19th National Congress. The film draws inspiration from the evacuation of 225 foreign nationals and nearly 600 Chinese citizens from Yemen's southern port of Aden in the 2015 Yemeni Civil War; “loosely,” meaning you won’t think about this statistic again while viewing the film. You will be wondering how in the world this is currently the third highest grossing film of 2018
There is no star power in Operation Red Sea. That void reverberates through your bones especially if you’ve seen Operation Mekong and you had Zhang Hanyu and Eddie Peng to guide you through intense and chaotic warfare. To be fair, Zhang Hanyu is in both films but appears to be playing different characters (Gao Ghang in Operation Mekong and the sparsely appearing fleet commander Gao Yun in Operation Red Sea) and Simon Yam has a so brief it's forgotten cameo. None of the performances have any sort of weight to them and the characters are written in a way that make them somehow feel less than one dimensional; eating candy out of superstition and staying loyal to your brothers (and sister) in arms doesn’t help anyone stand out from any of the other soldiers. Hai Xing, who portrays the French-Chinese journalist Xia Nan, is memorable but for all the wrong reasons. Xing is in poor form here as she milks her performance in Operation Red Sea. She completely hams it up by overacting in every scene or showcasing the weak prosthetic wound she has on our face every chance that she gets.
While the storytelling fails to captivate or entertain in any way whatsoever, its lack of character development leaves room for Operation Red Sea to be a semi-entertaining mindless action film and it doesn’t shy away from blood and gore. There are plenty of headshots, bullet wounds in meaty torsos that spray blood into the air, and appendages to be blown off in nearly every segment of the film; arms are blown off with grenades and wounded soldiers have to have limbs beyond repair cut off since they’re barely hanging on by nothing more than a piece of dangling flesh. The violence in Operation Red Sea is relentless, but it’s also realistic. There’s a uranium concrete powder known as yellowcake that is being utilized to make dirty bombs in the film and this is worth explaining solely to have the opportunity to make a bad pun in the next sentence. War isn’t a (yellow) cake walk and Operation Red Sea showcases how disturbing and graphic it can get when the odds are against you.
The visuals in the film are for the most part dynamically gratifying. Like Operation Mekong, Operation Red Sea utilizes unique perspectives like the camera being on the side of the barrel of a gun to give the film a video game and first person kind of visual or at the end of a tank gun as it aims at something on the other side of the dusty horizon. In addition to gore, the film is infested with explosions from car bombs, bazookas, and grenades. While the slow motion headshot to the Somali pirate that opens the film is cool at first, Operation Red Sea utilizes the same sequence at least another two times over the course of 138 minutes basically making a cliche of itself in the process as we jump to our 8-person Jiaolong Assault Team walking together in sunglasses in slow motion as if they were trying to be a part of the sequel to Top Gun. You also lose count of how many times you have to watch army convoys screeching from one side of the screen to the other.
Like other recent foreign films of the past five or so years, Operation Red Sea suffers from attempting to include the actors speaking in English. It makes some sense here since the production of the film had both Moroccan and Chinese as part of its crew and English was likely the easiest language the two groups could use to communicate, but it still drives this cringe-worthy wedge into foreign films fully being accepted as worthwhile and credible entertainment in the States in the eyes of an average moviegoer.
The absence of Eddie Peng truly makes a difference between this film and Operation Mekong. Operation Red Sea strips away all of the emotion that made the messy and frenetic violence of Operation Mekong a bit easier to swallow. The poor writing is the first thing that catches your attention while watching the film with the brutally intense and insanely explosive warfare being pushed beyond its limits before eventually collapsing on itself due to not having a proper story or at least a character to root for in between playing hot potato with a pile of active grenades. Despite both films being based on two different events that actually happened at different times in different areas of the world, Operation Red Sea feels like China’s answer to 12 Strong if they strapped a dozen sticks of dynamite to a horse, removed all of its limbs, and blew it to smithereens.
© 2018 Chris Sawin