Dante Lam has never been subtle about his fetish for law enforcement and military tactics. With Option Zero, Hit Team, The Sniper and The Viral Factor, Lam has consistently upped the ante with impressively staged sequences of armed combat. Last year’s Operation Mekong ended with a bravura 30-minute raid sequence that ranks as one of the most explosive action sequences in recent Hong Kong cinema. Operation Red Sea isn’t just a natural progression from that film; it’s the film that Dante Lam was always destined to make.
Loosely based on a real mission involving the evacuation of foreign nationals and Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015, Operation Red Sea follows the adventures of an elite naval unit called the Jiaolong Assault Team. After defeating pirates off the coast of Somalia, the Jiaolong commandos are ordered to evacuate Chinese nationals from the fictional African war-torn nation of Yewaire. The initial evacuation goes well, but things take a turn for the worse when a terrorist group takes a Chinese scientist hostage in order to find materials for weapons of mass destruction.
Filmed in Morocco with a reported budget of US$70 million, Operation Red Sea is by far Lam’s biggest production to date. Influenced stylistically by flashy Hollywood counterparts like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, the film is essentially Lam’s version of a Call of Duty live-action film. The episodic script mostly serves to take the Jiaolong team from one hellish set piece to the next, resulting in an all-out assault on the senses that will leave audiences shell-shocked by the end of its extended running time. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by Lam’s ambition to outdo Hollywood in a genre that it has practically patented. Lam’s brilliant staging work and sense of geography result in battle scenes that are chaotic and immersive, but never confusing.
Red Sea may be partly funded by the Chinese Navy, but like his Hollywood counterparts the film doesn’t glorify war one bit. Rated Category III (no one under 18 admitted) in Hong Kong but miraculously passed uncut in China, the film is one of the most graphic war films in recent memory. War is hell, and Lam doesn’t hesitate to hammer that point home with the bloody aftermath of a mortar attack or the gruesome details of what happens when a finger gets shot off. Unlike last year's Wolf Warrior II, which uses an escapist action extravaganza to show off the power of a superhero with Chinese characteristics, Red Sea is as much a powerful anti-war film as it is a proud showcase of China’s rising military power.
However, Operation Red Sea also carries an equal amount of Lam’s flaws as a storyteller. Attempts to humanise members of the Jiaolong team fall flat at times, especially the subdued romance subplot between two of its members. The journalist (played by Christine Hai Qing) who follows the Jiaolong crew on their mission is the story’s weakest link, providing more unnecessary conflicts and tragic backstories than the film actually needs. Melodrama has always been Lam’s biggest weakness, and that weakness is made even more apparent in a war film such as this.
Audiences aren’t looking to be swept into an emotional roller coaster when they watch Operation Red Sea; they’re there to be rocked by a visceral movie experience, and that’s what Lam has delivered in spades. Operation Red Sea does feel like it has overstayed its welcome a little by the time a tank chase rolls around at the climax, but it’s the war film genre at its harrowing best.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Dante Lam began his film career in 1984. He got his big break in the mid-1990s as a line producer for director Gordon Chan on The Final Option, Fist of Legend and First Option. He made his directorial debut in 1997 with Option Zero. Co-directed with Chan, his second film, Beast Cops (1998), earned Best Director at the 18th Hong Kong Film Awards. Despite being trained on action films, Lam’s filmography covers a diverse range of genres, including dark comedy, fantasy romance, fantasy, sports drama and psychological thriller.
1997 – Option Zero
1998 – Beast Cops (co-director)
2000 – Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone
2008 – Beast Stalker
2010 – Stool Pigeon
2012 – The Viral Factor
2013 – Unbeatable
2014 – That Demon Within
2016 – Operation Mekong
2018 – Operation Red Sea