Movie Review: Operation Red Sea (2018)
Who knew China’s humanitarian/military adventures would be so lucrative?
In March 2015, as fighting in the civil war in Yemen intensified, the Chinese Navy evacuated roughly 225 foreign nationals and 600 Chinese citizens from the southern port of Aden. It was a triumph: logistically, symbolically, internationally.
“Wolf Warrior II” (战 狼 II), released last summer, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and elite wolf warrior Leng Feng (Wu Jing) in a fictional southern African country. The film grossed US$854 million. It’s the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.
“Operation Red Sea” (红 海 行 动), released last month, set its rescue of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals by the Chinese Navy and its elite Jiaolong Assault Team in a fictional northern African country, Yewaire, along the Arabian peninsula. The film has grossed $520 million and counting. It’s about to become the second-biggest box-office hit in Chinese history.
The movies share more than real-life inspiration and big bucks. Both begin with the hero/heroes taking down Somali pirates. Both end with callouts to Chinese citizens abroad: that the Chinese motherland has their back (“Wolf Warrior”); and here’s the number to call or text if you run into trouble (“Red Sea”).
The differences are interesting.
他 们 是 谁？
“Wolf Warrior II” is more cartoonish, vaguely racist, anti-American. It needs not only China steaming to the rescue but America cutting and running. In “Red Sea,” America doesn’t factor in; it’s not even mentioned.
Leng Feng, despite the title of his film, is really a former Wolf Warrior; he goes where he wants. In this way, he’s a more traditional action hero: the lone wolf. The eight PLA heroes, meanwhile, still follow orders. They’re more professional and buttoned. And dull. Also tougher to follow. Who’s who again? None of the eight are recognizable stars (to me), they all wear the same clothes, none have backstories. What do we really know about them? One guy likes candy; the new sniper is cocky and chews gum. That’s about it. I wound up differentiating them so:
- The Captain
- Big Eyes
- Candy Man
- The Spotter
- The New Sniper
- The Girl
That leaves two; I don’t even remember which two.
The plot: As the Yewaire civil war heats up, the terrorist group Zaka tries to get its hands on Yellowcake and the secret to making a dirty bomb. The latter is stored in a locket hanging from the neck of an industrialist, whom we see kidnapped and brutalized. The terrorist leader, an imam, speaks soothingly to him as he examines a Christ-like wound in the man’s side; then he calmly opens up the wound with a knife; then, as the man screams, his sticks his hand in.
Most of the fighting involves machinery—sniper vs. sniper; tank vs. tank—so there’s little in the way of traditional cinematic martials arts battles. At one point, though, the Girl, head shaved, battles a terrorist in hand-to-hand aboard a grounded plane. It feels real. There are no clean movements, nothing balletic about it. It’s just a constant, close, sweaty struggle to get the upper hand, to get the right hold, in order to kill the other person. It’s kill or be killed. She kills.
Early on, the Chinese military seem so well-equipped and trained that I wondered how director Dante Lam was going to make a battle of it; how would he make them underdogs? Then the mortars start flying. Then the teenage Arab sniper with the scar (a great find, by the way; the kid has intensity) begins to pick off targets. After that, eight are left, and of course they’re ordered to attack the Zaka stronghold and free its one Chinese hostage. “Eight against 150,” the Captain says.
There you go. Movie odds.
糖 果 人
This is probably the biggest difference between the two Yemen-inspired movies: As violent as “Wolf Warrior II” is, I’ve never seen a level of violence like in “Red Sea.” It’s relentlessly, viscerally violent. It’s literally viscerally violent—as in here’s another shot of human innards splattered around what remains of a bus. “WWII”’s Leng Feng gets mussed, right? He winds up sweaty and dirty with dashing cuts on his face—like any Hollywood movie star. Here, one of the eight loses a finger, another an arm. Candy Man loses half his face. He spends his last five minutes on screen screaming in pain before finally succumbing to his wounds.
French director Francois Truffaut once said—via Roger Ebert—that even anti-war films are pro-war because they can’t help but be thrilling. I’m wondering if Dante Lam has managed to do the opposite: make a film so gung-ho, so full of his chest-beating love of guns, missiles and gore, that it’s actually anti-war. I’d be curious to hear from people who normally like war movies. For me, the violence is so brutal I kept turning away; the gunfire is so relentless, I just wanted it to end.
“This mission is a message to all terrorists,“ a Chinese Naval Officer says halfway through, ”that you will never harm a Chinese citizen.” Right. I would say the movie has a mixed message then. Chinese citizens may not get harmed, but everyone else does. Just ask Candy Man.