Film Review: Operation Red Sea

Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.

Elite soldiers on a mission to free hostages also take on a terrorist “dirty bomb” plot in a big-budget Chinese adventure.

a still from “Operation Red Sea”

Hong Kong action wiz Dante Lam struck gold with 2016’s Operation Mekong, a close-to-real-life movie that combined Chinese patriotism with high-octane action. His follow-up, Operation Red Sea, is closer in spirit to Wolf Warrior 2, China’s reigning box-office champ.

Operation Red Sea opens with a 20-minute pre-credits sequence in which members of the elite Jiaolong Assault Team thwart a pirate attack on a container cargo freighter in the Sea of Aden. Lam, who also wrote the movie and directed the action choreography, hits all the expected bases: hostages, helicopters, drones, boats, x-ray smartphones, snipers, night-vision goggles and bombs, stitched together with adrenalized pacing and superior stunts.

The movie morphs into an account of a hostage rescue after a coup in the fictional Middle East country Yewaire. Led by Captain Yang Rue (Zhang Yi), the eight-member assault team must protect the hostages from both rebel insurgents and “Zaka” terrorists.

The mission was similar in Wolf Warrior 2, but the real inspiration here seems to be Black Hawk Down. Lam’s sense of scale and logistics are remarkable, with scenes unfolding across a war-ravaged city cross-cut with tense desert showdowns. Individual stunts are outstanding, like the zip lines snipers use to set up rooftop shooting sites. And despite some obvious effects, the crashes and explosions are far more ferocious than Hollywood offerings.

Unfortunately, the characters are pretty generic. There’s a rookie soldier who doubts his courage, a tough-as-nails female with a heart of gold, an arrogant sniper who learns to appreciate his spotter. Captain Yang is all business, even when it means sacrificing his team. And of course that business is to do anything and everything to help the Chinese cause.

But for the most part, Operation Red Sea avoids the in-your-face jingoism that’s been a hallmark of recent Chinese releases. Lam is more interested in upping the odds against his soldiers. Flat tires, a mortar ambush, an enemy sniper, a terrorist double-cross and dozens more enemy assailants than expected keep the Jiaolong Assault Team on their toes.

They take a while to arrive, but Lam eventually offers up some of his typically insane stunts. In one chase, a car flips upside-down onto the roof of another, drivers and passengers shooting through windows as the vehicles hurtle down an alley. Later, tanks fire point-blank at each other while a sandstorm rages around them. The skill and ingenuity of the action set-pieces are phenomenal and exhausting at the same time.

Operation Red Sea has been performing well in the Chinese New Year box-office race, where it is screening in IMAX 3D. Its main support in the U.S. will be from action fans who appreciate Lam’s expertise.

Click here for cast and crew information.

“Operation Red Sea” is playing in select AMC theaters in the U.S..


–This article originally appeared on Film Journal.


Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison

  • A+
  • PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
  • THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  • DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
  • KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
  • A
  • LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
  • THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
  • A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  • STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  • MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  • LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
  • EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
  • MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
  • A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
  • SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
  • HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
  • RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
  • D-
  • TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)