“Operation Red Sea” is a Chinese war movie loosely base on the rescue of 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese civilians during the 2015 Yemeni Civil War. Chinese special forces participated in the operation. The movie was timed to the 90th Anniversary of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. It was directed by Dante Lam, who had been an assistant director under action icon John Woo. The apprenticeship shows in this movie. It has been described as China’s “first modern naval film”.
The movie begins in the Gulf of Aden in 2015. Somali pirates capture a Chinese cargo ship and hold the crew for ransom. Their leader wears an eye patch, but he does not have a parrot on his shoulder. The Jiaolong Assault Team (basically the equivalent of Navy SEALs) is sent in. The movie does not bother with the negotiation or planning stages. Who cares? We’re here for the action. And that action includes super slo-mo. So slow that we see the entire trip of bullets. Now that the aperitif is downed, it’s time for the main meal and it will have several courses. There is an ISIS type terrorist group called Zaka that will have to be dealt with. They are trying to get yellow cake to build a dirty bomb. A female reporter named Xia is hot on the trail. She will link up with the eight-person (one of them is a woman) commando unit, but first they have to rescue the Chinese embassy staff from an ambush. Then survive their own ambush. Then rescue a Chinese diplomat from a village full of Zaka. Not subtly. Then stop the acquisition of the yellow cake by Zaka’s Bin Laden. There’s a little talking in between the set pieces.
“Operation Red Sea” is combat porn, but it is done with flair and a big budget. There are breathers shoe-horned in, but the movie is basically a series of gonzo action scenes. There is a very high percentage of action in this film. Although supposedly based on actual events, it jumps the reality fence early and never looks back. In some ways it copies from American special forces movies, but adds the Asian action that John Woo is famous for. And where an American SEAL movie might have two missions, this movie has four. More is better, right. There are two ambushes. There are two sniper duels. The violence is graphic and unrelenting. So unrelenting that no one has time to reload. Which is good, because they don’t seem to carry any extra ammo. As is required in movies like this, each action scene has to top the last. Before the audience can limp out of the theater, they got a tank chase/duel! They also got to marvel at the technology the Chinese military has for battling terrorism. For instance, they have a mini-drone that can be maneuvered over bad guys to explode onto them. Twice.
You won’t get much character development, but at least the names of the commandoes is flashed on the screen when they first appear. (Nice touch for those of us who had a hard time telling them apart.) The movie does have two strong female characters. Xia is the feisty investigative reporter (outside China, of course) and she is capable of morphing into an action hero. Tong Li is the female operative and she holds her own with the guys. She’s the Vasquez (“Aliens”) of the group. The acting is good and they are not forced to say mindless snark. The movie may be over the top, but it is not silly. It clearly is meant to laud the Chinese navy, but it is not overly propagandistic.
I don’t know whether to compliment the Chinese for copying American movies. Why should our plots be off limits when everything else isn’t? You will recognize cribbing from “Black Hawk Down”, “Act of Valor”, “Lone Survivor”, and “American Sniper”. This movie might not be in a league with those movies, but it puts China in the game. I still prefer South Korean war movies, but the Chinese have some potential. And if their special forces are like the movie depicts, we don’t want to fight them. By the way, the last scene has a Chinese fleet warning American ship to stay out of Chinese waters.
“Operation Red Sea” is an entertaining action extravaganza for guys. Even with the two female characters, it is as far from a chick-flick as you can get. If you are not a big fan of reality and prefer ammo-expenditure, explosions, slaughter of terrorists, and tanks dueling in a sand storm, it is a movie for you. Just don’t watch it as a documentary of how the Chinese military evacuated civilians from Yemen in 2015.
GRADE = B