Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

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3 Days to Kill


Kevin Costner isn't going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

Kevin Costner isn’t going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

(2014) Thriller (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Tomas Lemarquis, Richard Sammel, Marc Andreoni, Bruno Ricci, Jonas Bloquet, Eriq Ebouaney, Joakhim Sigue, Alison Valence, Big John, Michael Vander-Meiren, Paolo Calia, Eric Naggar, Alexis Jacquin, Frederick Malahieude, Patty Hannock, Marie Guillard, Mai Anh Le. Directed by McG

The ties that bind are often stretched, if not severed, by the needs of our careers. Success requires a certain amount of attention that is usually stolen from that which we turn on our homes and families. It is from there that we rob Peter to pay Paul.

Ethan Renner (Costner) has been living that life longer than he can count. It has cost him his wife Christine (Nielsen) and his daughter Zoe (Steinfeld) who live in Paris and rarely speak to him and find no real reason to seek that kind of thing out. Of course, Ethan has a somewhat unusual career – he’s an assassin for the United States government.

He has been sent to take out the Albino (Lemarquis), the right hand of a German arms dealer nicknamed the Wolf (Sammel). However, the meticulously set up hit goes sideway when the Albino recognizes one of the agents (Le), dispatching her in a particularly gruesome fashion. Ethan himself gives chase and has the Albino in his sights but collapses, nose bleeding and barely able to breathe. He manages to put a bullet in the leg of the Albino before passing out.

It turns out that Ethan isn’t well at all. He has a brain tumor that has spread into his lungs because, you know, the brain and the lungs are connected. He doesn’t have much time left to him; a few months at most. Faced with his own mortality, Ethan decides that killing for his country doesn’t have the same appeal and decides to spend what time he has left reconnecting with his wife and daughter.

While he tells his wife about his condition, he keeps that information from his daughter. Zoe is a typical teenage girl; sneaks out to go party with friends, check. Underage drinking, check. Argues with her mom like cats and dogs, check. Dresses inappropriately, check. Subject to wild mood swings that defy logic and reason, check. Yup, typical teenager girl.

Ethan is doing his best but it’s not a smooth integration into their lives. However, when Vivi Delay (Heard), a fellow assassin, shows up with an offer of an experimental drug that might give him a significantly longer life span in exchange for finishing his job and taking out the Wolf and the Albino, he leaps at the chance. He goes after the Albino’s driver Mitat (Andreoni) and finds him to be a family man who commiserates with Ethan’s dilemma with Zoe.  Through the hapless Mitat Ethan looks to work his way up the chain until he gets his man.

Unfortunately, the miracle cure has a few side effects that always seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments. Ethan, who’d distanced himself from his own family so that the ugliness of his job doesn’t touch them, finds that they are being drawn in anyway. The whole point of taking this cure was so that he could have more time with Christine and Zoe but it only takes one well-placed bullet from one of the Wolf’s men. A bullet through the brain still has no cure.

This is fairly pedestrian espionage stuff. We’ve seen similar things with Jackie Chan, Vin Diesel and the Rock in the lead and with similarly mixed results. Costner isn’t really known for being an action star, although he has done a few films in his career that have required that element and to be honest, he can be quite good in that kind of role.

In fact, Costner is really the best thing this movie has going for it. He’s likable and down to earth, so we get a spy/killer who isn’t suave, who isn’t refined but is kind of rough around the edges. He’s had to reinvent his career to a certain extent, becoming more of a character actor as of late rather than a leading man but make no mistake, he’s still one of the most likable leading men in Hollywood history and he remains so here. His relationship with Steinfeld as Zoe is one of the movie’s high points – it’s genuine and most parents of once and present teenagers will tell you holds some of the same ups and downs that real life parents of teens are all-too-familiar with.

Heard is a terrific actress who is thrown into a part that is just misconceived from the get-go. She appears periodically in different wigs and looking like she just got off the runway at Milan, chain-smoking with a sardonic grin and far too young to be a master spy yet here she is. In fact, she oozes competence so much that one wonders that with her skills why does she need Ethan at all (the answer is that Ethan is the only one who’s actually seen the Wolf and might recognize him). Still, while I get the sense she had fun with the role, it’s just so badly laid out that it becomes distracting for all the wrong reasons.

The hallmark of a Luc Besson movie is well-done action sequences and there are several here that will keep action fans if not happy, at least not walking out of the theater. There’s nothing here that’s overly imaginative or challenging but it at least is professionally done so there is entertainment value throughout. The Wolf and the Albino, while having nifty monikers, lack any sort of menace. They both scowl a lot and other than the one scene where the Albino executes a female agent, you don’t get a sense that they pose any threat to Ethan or anyone else in the movie. They’re more or less just goals for Ethan to achieve and it’s more of a game of hide and seek rather than spy versus spy.

REASONS TO GO: Costner and Steinfeld are solid. Some decent action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Heard fares poorly. Villains not menacing enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, a bit of sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming in Belgrade, Costner was given an audience with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Paris With Love

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Non-Stop

Right at Your Door


Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

Mary McCormack just got in on the redeye.

(Roadside Attractions) Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane, Tony Perez, Scotty Noyd Jr., Max Kasch, Jon Huertas, Will McCormack. Directed by Chris Gorak.

When the chips are down, how will we respond? Will we take heroic measures to save our loved ones from harm, or will we save ourselves first?

Brad (Cochrane) and Lexi (McCormack) have moved in to a new home near downtown L.A. She works in an office, and he is a musician, so his hours are far more irregular. Still, he’s a good husband, preparing her coffee for her before she must get up to go to work and taking care of affairs for the couple while she is busy on the job.

It’s a morning like any other; traffic is bad as always but the smog’s not too bad, even if it promises to be a warm summer day. Lexi takes off for work, promising to use side streets after reports of badly backed up traffic on the freeways. Then things take a left turn.

Reports of explosions throughout the city cause mass confusion. Brad can’t get in contact with his wife, who was in the area of the first explosions and he is frantic. He decides to go and get her, or at least find out what happened. This proves to be impossible, however, as the police are blocking access to main streets leading to the downtown area in order to facilitate emergency vehicles.

Still, the reports get worse. It turns out that these explosions weren’t just ordinary bombs; they were dirty bombs, loaded with a lethal toxin that is being carried on the ash. Brad makes it to a hardware store where he buys duct tape and other material to seal his house. He then returns home to wait for his wife but not before encountering Timmy (Noyd), a small boy whose mother hadn’t picked him up from school. Brad urges Timmy to run home as fast as he can, then continues to his own home.

As he frantically listens to the news awaiting any information, there’s a knock on his door. It’s Alvaro (Perez), the neighbor’s handyman. He is a long way from his home and there’s no way he’d get there in time before the ash overcame him. He asks for shelter in Brad’s home. Brad is at first reluctant, but then agrees.

Time passes and still no word from Lexi. Her mother calls and Brad assures her that they are both fine and riding things out at home. When she demands to speak to Lexi directly, he hangs up on her, unsure what to do and helpless to act. Alvaro is urgently badgering Brad to seal up the house, promising him that Lexi has probably taken shelter somewhere already. The ash cloud is getting closer and closer. Hammered by Alvaro’s urgings and his mind numbed by panic, Brad and his guest use sheets of plastic and the duct tape to seal up the house as best they can. He waits as long as he possibly can until, with the ash falling outside, he seals the front door.

The next day, there is a frantic knock at the door. It is Lexi, who has come on foot from downtown after her car was damaged in the blasts. She herself is all right, but she is coughing violently. She wants in. She is obviously infected, terrified and in need of comfort. Does Brad let her in and risk exposure, or does he keep himself quarantined and safe?

Director Gorak crafts a nice, taut drama that puts his characters in an unimaginable situation. To his credit, he doesn’t make Brad particularly heroic. Certainly he loves his wife and his worry for her is genuine. Given a choice to save his own life and hers, he makes a choice that might make some take pause, but seems to be pretty authentic to my eye.

The situation certainly seems realistic. The information that Brad receives is piecemeal and often wrong. Rumor and innuendo are valid sources of information in the world where the news is often confusing and nonsensical. He has to make decisions based on often-faulty or untrustworthy information. He relies on Alvaro who while seemingly calm is just masking an inner hysteria which is close to coming to the surface.

Nobody really goes into a full-on meltdown. There really isn’t any time for it. The panic shows in the irrational decisions, the eagerness to believe what they want to believe despite having no basis for it. Having been through a natural disaster, I can tell you that much of what Gorak is describing here is absolutely dead on. Remembering how official agencies and the media reacted in the wake of 9-11, it’s easy to see how misinformation would be spread by agencies eager to report any news at all, even if it can’t be verified.

This is certainly a study in human nature rather than an examination of how official agencies react in crisis. Our tendency is to do what is most beneficial to us at the expense of others even in the best of times, and crises tend to amplify our basic behaviors. The acting here is solid and authentic-feeling; nothing rings false. There is also a nice but unexpected ending, the nature of which I won’t reveal here.

This is not a spectacle in the least. The disaster is reported in an almost matter-of-fact matter and for the most part is described rather than actually seen. The fall of ash is eerie and snow-like, unsettling more because we know what the ash is carrying. We associate big special effects with most disaster movies and in a way, this is a disaster movie but this is entirely low-key. The special effects occur almost completely in our imaginations, where the budget is unlimited.

I liked this movie while I was watching it, but I liked it even more when it was done and the longer time has passed since I’ve seen it, the more I like it. To me, that’s the mark of a good motion picture, when the movie gets better as you think about it more. You may not find spectacle, but you’ll find insight and authenticity. Perhaps that’s what makes this all the more frightening; the unseen generally is the most terrifying thing of all.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic look at human nature in a severe crisis. The filmmakers rely on the description of events rather than on special effects to make this more taut and effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people may want something more spectacular than this in a disaster movie.

FAMILY VALUES: The situation is fairly adult and there is a child placed in harm’s way. The depiction of the toxin taking effect is scary, and the description of the explosions and their aftermath may be too graphic for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming took place in the Silver Lake districte of Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cache