OPERATION RED SEA: The Definition Of ‘Action-Packed’
Dante Lam's latest military rollercoaster ride, Operation Red Sea, is an unrelenting vehicle of authentic action entertainment, an extensive series of well-executed, thrilling combat sequences.
Yesterday I attended a preview screening of the American war action film 12 Strong, a cinematic muscle flex that took a true life military operation and transformed it into a manipulative piece of blatant propaganda. The jingoistic vibe was unmistakable from the opening moments, using the unforgettable imagery of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to invoke an undeniable sense of sympathy for its masculine lead characters. Stripped of its thick veneer of red-white and blue flag waving, 12 Strong is quite a bland, forgettable piece of exploitative entertainment, whose only distinctive element is its blinding love for its uncharismatic protagonists.
What made it interesting, though, was seeing it a day after watching Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, an equally patriotic and action-packed advertisement of China’s militaristic capabilities. Unlike the general banality of 12 Strong’s useless moments of camouflaged vengeance, Operation Red Sea is a terrific action movie outside of its extreme patriotism, an incredibly entertaining and stimulating adrenaline rush that rivals Hollywood’s current blockbuster offerings.
The Extra Wolf Warriors
“A Message to all terrorists, you never harm a Chinese citizen” boasts the fleet commissar, which should immediately sum up in one sentence the overall tone and thematic goal of Dante Lam’s epic follow-up feature to his 2016 box office smash hit Operation MeKong. This sense of potential reckoning is confirmed in the opening scene, as we are introduced to the People’s Liberation Army Special Operation Forces (aka the Jialong Assault Team), a special branch of the People’s Liberation Army. This elite task force is made up of team leader Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), deputy team leader Xu Hong (Du Jiang), the team’s sole female member Tong Li (Jiang Luxia), and the 5 other loyal associates in the efficient squad.
Don’t worry about the vague character detailing here, as outside of some briefly-introduced title cards at the beginning, Lam and co-writer Feng Ji aren’t really interested in detailing these soldiers outside of what type of firearm they use in battle. One minor aspect that deserves praise is its progressive nature towards its female protagonists, as Tong Li is never excluded or specifically highlighted purely because of her gender, she’s merely treated as another normal member of the team, a subtle lesson that should be taught to Hollywood executives.
Much like the ridiculous opening of Wu Jing’s record-breaking epic Wolf Warrior 2 from last year, the efficiency of our principal Special Forces group is demonstrated through the meticulous rescue attempt of a Chinese cargo ship that’s been taken hostage by a rogue group of Somalian pirates (Seriously, both movies open with the exact same narrative setup).
The pinpoint accuracy required to pull off this ambitious task is displayed through a nail-biting slow-motion sequence, a great moment that not only reinforces its strong theme of teamwork, but also unapologetically informs you of the fierce nationalism that’s being cinematically rendered here. This may be distracting or uncomfortable for some, but I appreciated that it was at least upfront with its severe patriotic attitude, rather than trying to thinly disguise it under a vague facade of righteous retribution that 12 Strong tried to sell to its hardcore target audience.
Meanwhile, in the fictional African country of Yewaire, French-Chinese journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing) is on the cusp of breaking the biggest story of her career – the terrorists who are fuelling a violent civil war are after a cache of ‘yellowcake’ (uranium), alongside a hidden recipe which would allow them to make dirty bombs. As Yewaire becomes more unstable, the Jialong Assault Team is ordered to evacuate the Chinese citizens and employees out of the country, which totals at an alarming number of 600 people.
Teaming up with the local military forces, the Assault Team and Xia Nan must survive a barrage of tanks, helicopters and thousands of armed soldiers in the pursuit of stopping global chaos from erupting, but most importantly – making sure not one Chinese person is killed. A film that’s this pro-journalism whilst simultaneously championing an aggressively positive position on the armed forces might create some real complex dilemmas for the members of today’s American college campuses.
What follows is a level of gory carnage that makes Hacksaw Ridge look like a Saturday Morning Disney Channel cartoon, a bold display of unflinching violence that is vividly relentless (there’s a gruesome interrogation scene that features freshly-sewn stitches being methodically ripped out that is bound to make anybody wince). Limbs are repeatedly blown-off in graphic fashions, the gunshot wounds are bloody and the body count is easily in the triple digits range, where bodies are dropped just as frequently as bullets and missiles.
It cannot be stressed enough just how purely relentless Operation Red Sea is; if you stitched together all of the brief occasions where the film stops to take a breath, you’d probably accumulate about 10 minutes worth of footage from the towering 140 minute run-time, a protracted period of uncompromising commotion that may come off as intimidating to some, but the George Miller-esque level of consistent intensity means that you’ll never be checking your watch – despite the constant clock-ticking that pulsates throughout the dynamic soundtrack.
Coming right off the heels of Hans Zimmer’s highly celebrated score for Dunkirk comes newcomer Elliot Leung‘s powerful soundtrack for Operation Red Sea, a setlist that feels like a spiritual cousin to Christopher Nolan’s war melodies. Not only do they both give some invigorating life to their attached pictures, but both incorporate the themes of the ticking clock, a cleverly used noise element that accelerates the unfolding destruction and the battleground-induced anxiety.
Leung’s dramatic vitality crescendos in the movie’s questionable final series of shots which includes large bold text that reads “Conquer Fear, Conquer All!”, which shortly dissolves into stock footage of the Chinese navy, who urge a warning about crossing into their oceans. The track that accompanies this is named “The Strong Vanquish All”, which really puts a clear stamp on the definitive intentions being exhibited here, gambling that audiences didn’t quite catch the previous 139 minutes of fearless brutality that has just occurred.
The success of Operation Mekong has rewarded Dante Lam with a crazy amount of resources to play with, a rare opportunity that he creatively uses to its maximised ability. Between the real-life military vehicles, tanks, countless numbers of cars and high-powered weaponry, the full value of Lam’s $70M is very visible on-screen, as he intelligently weaves together a consolidation of practical effects and CGI, which prevents the expansive carnage from ever looking cheap or subpar. As seen in its international one-sheet artwork, there is a third act tank battle that borrows heavily from Mad Max: Fury Road, as the armoured fighting vehicles stand off in a blinding sandstorm that is very visually reminiscent of George Miller’s jaw-dropping set-piece from the beloved 2015 release.
Operation Red Sea: Conclusion
Despite only being 3 months into 2018, I’m not afraid to call Operation Red Sea one of the best action films of the year. For those who can get past the severe patriotism that drives the narrative and overall production, Dante Lam’s latest military rollercoaster ride is an unrelenting vehicle of authentic action entertainment, an extensive series of well-executed, thrilling combat sequences.
Any form of characterisation or thematic depth is sacrificed in order to magnify the pure spectacle on display here, an impressively violent feature that, alongside Wolf Warrior 2, has made China one of the most exciting sources for new action movies. Despite their strong attempts of prideful nationalism, neither this or 12 Strong has sold me on joining the military, but after Operation Red Sea, I’m definitely subscribing to whatever big budget action entry China has for us next.
Do you have an interest in the growing number of big-budget Chinese action films?
Operation Red Sea was released in Chinese cinemas on February 16th, in American cinemas on February 23rd.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.