Dante Lam has built quite a resume, often favoring standalone films opposed to sequels, his highly-rated Hong Kong thrillers Beast Stalker (2008), The Stool Pigeon (2010), That Demon Within (2014) and his Mixed Martial Arts based drama Unbeatable (2013) secured himself as a fine storyteller but his recent ventures have propelled him to new heights, with a taste for high octane action sequences and insane amount of explosions.
2011 saw Dante Lam dabble with Hollywood style action with Viral Factor which demonstrated a more action-orientated affair but it was Operation Mekong (2016) that cemented his status as Hong Kong’s Michael Bay. Operation Red Sea furthers his agenda in being Hong Kong’s number one action director.
Wu Jings Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) beat Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea to the theatres but they are altogether very different beasts. Dante favors realism opposed to Jing’s overly exaggerated ‘Ramboo’ styling, Operation Red Sea’s gunfights are brutal and visceral and its patriotism is not as in your face as Wu Jing’s outing (there’s none of the obvious flag-waving) but it does wear it’s national pride on its sleeves both figuratively and literally.
Based on 2015 real events, the evacuation of Chinese nationals trapped in Yemen, Operation Red Sea sees the elite naval team, Jiaolong lead by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi) and his team of indistinguishable members; Shun Gu (Huang Jingyu), Li Dong (Yin Fang), Xu Hong (Du Jiang), Zhang Tiande (Wang Yutian) and Tong Li (Jiang Luxia) assigned to the fictional city of Yewaire to evacuate the citizens trapped in the country which is hit by civil war.
During a rescue mission, they encounter investigative reporter Xia Nan (Hai Qing) who is investigating a terrorist group smuggling ‘Yellowcake’, a lethal weapon that can cause utter devastation. Xia Nan convinces Yang to prolong their rescue mission to help the local citizens and stop the terrorists.
Zhang Yi for most parts handles his stoic serious character with ease his no-nonsense persona is fitting if a little one notes. Hai Qing does tend to go over with her performance occasionally venturing to realms of hysterical but it is soon reined in before it goes too far.
Martial arts actress Jiang Luxia handles the heavy lifting with ease in a picture of adrenaline-fuelled man, she is probably the most memorable out of the group but that is more to do with the fact that she is the only female member of the team.
It’s the rest of the cast that is sadly reduced to pointless fodder, though each is provided with their little quirks it never really amounts to much. You will be hard-pressed to remember who is who when the film ends. A major positive aspect is the foreign actors who all provide solid performances which is usually not the case with Chinese directed projects. The likes of Simon Yam and Zhang Hanyu lend their faces in cameo appearances but their role is minor and offers little.
Handling the action is Yuen Woo Ping protégé Tony Ling Chi Wah (who sadly passed away in 2019), Ling has previously collaborated with Dante Lam on Unbeatable. Tony Ling along with Dante (who is also credited for action design) crafts some insane and intense action sequences with each set piece different from the last.
The variety on display is commendable and it is clear that director Dante knows that there needs to be enough variation to keep audiences entertained. The opening sees the team infiltrate a ship of tight corridors, the next action sequence jumps to Moroccan streets with a large scale battle on the roads and a battle in the confines of an industrial building.
Midway is a rescue mission at a terrorist headquarters, with an undercover infiltration escalating to an all-out shootout which then transitions to a tank battle traversing through the streets to the desert land.
The epic finale showcases helicopters, a car chase, a sniping battle and punch em up within an aircraft carrier. Peppered throughout is an assortment of action set pieces that would be too much to cover, things rarely let up and almost all action scenes are punctuated with some sort of explosion.
Something that can be faulted with the action is some rather haptic editing occasionally making it hard to keep track of who is who especially during the more chaotic moments.
The camera is always in motion helping the kinetic energy, cinematographer Feng Yuen Man utilizes an array of quick pans and zooms. Ariel shots are abundant showcasing the grand scale, with Morocco lending favorable environments. Much of the film is shot with natural lighting and it helps to accentuate the dirtiness and grittiness.
Dante Lam has drawn much influence from Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now and any Michael Bay explosion fueled film. Lam’s knack for real explosions and pyrotechnics is welcome and you can feel the sense of danger and impact of each eruption.
The accompaniment of some strong sound effects help sell every bang and gunfire. It’s nice to see a Chinese picture not shy to depict the horrors of battle, every shootout is brutal with copious amounts of blood and limbs are blown off with a large amount of gut splatter, though this is dependent on which version you see for the heavy censorship in China means that the majority of graphic scenes are edited out.
Structurally this film is pretty similar to his previous success in Operation Mekong, a nonstop action-filled film with a ragtag team of personalities individuals forced to take on a group of adversaries.
As good as the action beats are Lam sacrifices a lot in the characterization. Gone are the days where Lam and his writers had character-driven films, where characters were morally ambiguous and filled with psychological torment. The little touches of trying to add character can come off as forced and a laughable romance within the team feels like an afterthought.
Dante Lam is probably still one of the few Hong Kong directors to excite with each successful outing. Operation Red Sea is not as in your face with its patriotism that other Chinese films tend to force onto its audience and its bombastic action is in line with a lot of American made films.
Oddly enough the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language film for the 91st Academy Awards.