Operation Red Sea film review: Dante Lam’s military epic is jingoistic, but also a surprisingly hellish depiction of war

Bombastic, grisly and full of impressive action set pieces, Hong Kong director’s big-budget movie has blasted its way to box office supremacy over the Chinese New Year holiday despite its nihilistic view of warfare

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 5:51pm

3.5/5 stars

When Dante Lam Chiu-yin left behind his brand of vicious contemporary crime thriller – remember the excitement everyone felt when he unleashed Beast Stalker 10 years ago? – to direct the patriotic Chinese blockbuster Operation Mekong (2016), it was hard for long-time devotees to picture the Hong Kong action film maestro holding on to his self-proclaimed auteur vision for too long.

Even so, while that anti-drug thriller turns out to have been a thematic precursor to the bombastic military spectacle Operation Red Sea, it still comes as quite a shock to see Lam get away with fashioning such a nihilistic view of war in this new, mega-budget production.

For all its unabashed jingoism (including a South China Sea warning towards the end), the hellish displays of combat it includes hardly make for an advertisement to enlist.

Inspired by the People’s Liberation Army navy’s evacuation of Chinese citizens during the 2015 Yemen civil war, the story is set in the fictional country of Yewaire, where the cartoonish level of villainy – civil war involving Islamic State-like extremists, a key to making new “dirty bombs”, and a terrorist leader who, we’re told by the way, sexually assaults young girls – all but grants our heroes full licence to improvise.

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Unlike the individual heroism of Wolf Warrior 2 , also based on the Yemen mission, Operation Red Sea takes a relatively realistic approach to its parade of utterly impressive action set pieces. Despite its murky plotting and cast of interchangeable characters, the hostage rescue mission by the elite Jiaolong assault team – led by Zhang Yi’s captain – truly clicks into focus about a third into the film, when they must outsmart and outgun their numerically superior foes.

Lam’s conviction in presenting war in all its sickening glory has paid off handsomely in China. For a film so astonishingly grisly that it’s rated Category III in Hong Kong (meaning no viewers under 18 are allowed to see it in cinemas), Operation Red Sea has so far defied the Lunar New Year festival mood, earned rave reviews from audiences in China, and narrowly overtaken Monster Hunt 2 in box office gross after 10 days.

Now bring on the next Operation.

Operation Red Sea opens on March 1

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