Thursday, March 01, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year, Have a Quasi-Sequel: Operation Red Sea

Under a lot of circumstances, I might not really question how much I enjoyed this sort of gung-ho, pro-military action tale; even though I'm not a violent person, I do love action movies that don't mess around; there's pretty good catharsis in an evil person being blown up and making a conflict physical can heighten a dry debate into something exciting. There's a raw sort of beauty to great action choreography that we can sometimes be loath to admit if we disdain violence in real life.

I lead off with that because I'm actually a little unsure how to process my enjoyment of this in a certain context. This is pretty clearly a recruitment ad for the Chinese military, and, as an American, I don't necessarily want China getting too well-equipped/skilled/confident on that front, and it's kind of weird to be sitting in a theater in Boston and having that message pushed to what turned out to be a reasonably full house, even if the movie itself is mostly pro-China without really being anti-Western in the way that the Wolf Warrior movies are (although, if I were middle-eastern, I suspect I'd give it some side-eye). Still, it was easy enough to look past that and just enjoy the action up until the point where the gore made me squeamish or the sheer volume became too much.

And yet, I feel a bit guilty for enjoying that, considering how I spent a good chunk of the morning I saw the movie on an airplane, reading Liberty's Last Stand by Stephen Coonts, and… Yikes. I've kind of known that the folks who write these sort of military/espionage thrillers are more right-wing than me ever since I started reading them as a teenager and that the gap has only grown wider since then, it's still kind of alarming to see a book by an author I've always liked be so solidly built around conservative paranoia and persecution complexes. I got about 60% done on the flight, so I'll probably finish it, but it's interesting to me that I'm having a lot more trouble putting the politics aside and enjoying the nuts and bolts of the story compared to how well I was able to do that with Operation Red Sea.

Hong hai xing dong (Operation Red Sea)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Give old hand Dante Lam credit - he does not mess around. Less than two years after he had a hit with Operation Mekong, he's got another insanely violent (but impressively mounted) tale of China taking matters into its own hands in theaters, one seem like it may have taken a page not just from actual events but last summer's Wolf Warrior 2 (and why not, since that thing made a billion dollars). It's over-the-top action propaganda like all those movies, but you can't argue Lam doesn't know his way around the material even if he also doesn't exactly know restraint.

It opens with a Jiaolong Marine strike team coming to the aid of a Chinese-flagged freighter that has been boarded by pirates in the Gulf of Aden, a mission that ends successfully but not without casualties. At about the same time, in Casablanca, Chinese-French journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing) and her assistant Abu have discovered a terrorist conspiracy to build a massive dirty bomb with stolen yellowcake uranium, a trail which leads them to one William Parsons in the country of Yewaire. Yewaire is about to fall apart, becoming dangerous enough for China to evacuate its 130 citizens in the country. Securing this exit falls to the same Jiaolong team - marine captain Yang Rui (Zhang Rui), demolitions expert Xu Hong (Du Jiang), sniper Gu Shun (Huang Jinjyu) and his spotter Li Dong (Yin Fang), gunners "Sitou" Zhang Tiande (Wang Yutian) and Tong Li (Jiang Luxia), comms specialist Zhuang Yu (Henry Prince Mak), and medic Lu Chen (Guo Jiahao) - and while exfiltrating the Chinese nationals in the capital is hard enough, the real challenge will be rescuing the likes of Deng Mei (Huang Fenfen) who work in the interior. Coincidentally, Parsons is one of Deng's co-workers.

That's a lot of people and situations to keep track of, but it's only during an early bit of English-language exposition that the movie really falters, and while that can sometimes be a negative, Lam and his co-writers aren't really going for complicated storytelling here: The story is an excuse for the action and flag-waving, and there is arguably just enough there to justify the military stuff. Lam could have streamlined it even further - you might lose the last big action piece if you removed Xia Nan, but not much else story-wise (which would get the movie down to the two hour mark rather than it dragging a bit at around 140 minutes). Then again, she gives the film a protagonist who can make mistakes, unlike the brave men of the People's Navy - she's not just a civilian, but one with a European background, and while soldiers can fall, it's seldom (if ever) because they screwed up tactically. Lam is careful to show that every potentially questionable mission action is run up the chain of command by the ship's captain (Zhang Hanyu) and commissar (Wang Qiang), with the government of Yewaire - a fictional country standing in for Yemen, where the evacuation that inspired the story took place - not just welcoming the Chinese military but tending to defer to them. As propaganda goes, you're not surprised to see the Navy's slogan and a recruitment video over the end credits, but it's still less ham-fisted than the Wolf Warrior movies.

Full review on EFC

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