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Operation Red Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Chinese military propaganda, but the bloody mayhem is done awful well."
4 stars

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.

But, boy, does he have that Navy kick some ass. Once the action begins in earnest, it just keeps going, with long sequences and intricate staging that nevertheless establishes immediate goals and immediate danger even as he both makes sure to use the entirety of his budget for blanks and occasionally follows a sniper's bullet through someone's head in slow motion. When Lam has the Chinese Marines executing an assault, the film is like he spliced John Woo heroic bloodshed DNA into a war movie, with action choreography (by Lam himself) that is not only smooth and stylish but cut together with tremendous care to give time to roughly a dozen characters, and even an audience not inclined to fist-pumping the work of the Chinese military can very swept along. A lot of rounds are fired off and crap blown up, although not exactly sanitized; though Lam conducts it the way his composer does the bombastic score, as next-level bullet ballet, folks die ugly, gruesome deaths.

The cast is just good enough that the characters don't feel entirely like interchangeable people in similar uniforms and it's a bit of a hit when one of them falls in action, but if Lam does a third Operation Dangerous Place movie in a couple of years, there's no particular need to bring any of the survivors back. Hai Qing makes a good driven reporter, and Huang Jinjyu handles the cocky newcomer without overplaying it, but neither transcends a purely functional script. On the other hand, Jiang Luxia may finally be getting her breakout role here - she's been part of the ensemble in a number of martial-arts flicks over the last decade, making fight scenes with bigger stars look good, and while this isn't a hand-to-hand sort of movie, she's fierce as Tong Li, easily the most memorable even if she weren't the only woman in the squad.

Is the unrelenting wave of military action maybe too much? Almost certainly; the final big action piece is like a band coming out for an encore even when the audience is spent, and the results of all this combat is often gruesome (there's more mayhem than the average horror movie, even adjusting for length) and excessive. Like its predecessor, "Red Sea" offers violence you can't minimize by just saying it is "action-packed", but it does this really well; the primitive part of the brain that responds to that will have a blast.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32029&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/01/18 13:01:07
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Directed by
  Dante Lam

Written by
  Ji Feng

  Yi Zhang
  Johnny Huang
  Jiang Du
  Luxia Jiang
  Fang Yin

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