A group of heavily armed soldiers burst into a room filled with terrified hostages, who have no idea what is happening.
“Don’t worry,” one of the soldiers says. “We’re the Chinese Navy, and we’re here to take you home.”
That is the message and the running theme of "Operation Red Sea," a new action-thriller movie now in limited release in the United States and around the world. Hand in hand with the "One Belt, One Road" motif, the altruistic Chinese relentlessly fight bad guys, using sophisticated high-technology—but often against near-hopeless odds and at great cost to themselves.
Several key points make "Operation Red Sea" a significant departure from most of its predecessors. The locale moves to the fictional country of Yewaire—clearly based on Yemen—and prominently features the Chinese Navy’s deployed anti-piracy escort forces. The movie reportedly marks the first official cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) with a major cinematic production. There are no key American or European antagonists—the Chinese strictly fight Arab-looking terrorists or Somali pirates. And throughout the movie, the Chinese strive to be a force for good, standing against evil in an often-desperate struggle to protect and save the innocent.
The movie is directed by Hong Kong based-Dante Lam Chiu-Yin, also known as Lín Chāoxián, famous for action films in the tradition of John Woo. "Operation Red Sea" is something of a sequel to Dante Lam’s 2016 blockbuster "Operation Mekong," one of the highest-grossing Chinese films to date. The plot is loosely based on the 2015 evacuation of about 600 Chinese citizens from Aden, along with more than 200 other foreign nationals.
"Operation Red Sea" is a certified hit. The Xinhua news service reported on 7 March the movie led the Chinese film market for the week ending 4 March—nearly double its second-place competition—and has grossed at least $490 million since its release on 16 February. According to the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com), the film already made approximately $70 million—peanuts in Hollywood terms.
In true action movie style, the movie’s squib count—special effects that look like bullet hits—is enormous, and guns are firing for probably 100 of the film’s 139 minutes. The body count is exceptionally high—those who do not die violently are emphatically in the minority.
The movie opens with Somali pirates taking over a very large Chinese containership, holding the crew hostage on the bridge while rigging explosives to the propeller shaft. Special operations (SpecOps) teams deploy from the Chinese escort force—including the Linyi —a real Type-054A frigate—and a Type 071 LPD amphibious assault ship. In Tom Clancy-esque fashion, the teams deploy a wide range of technologies to infiltrate the ship. In one amazing scene, the armed-Chinese shoot past the hostages to kill all but one of the pirates, leaving the hostages untouched. The pirate leader escapes in a high-speed boat, but the Chinese run him down just as he is yards from crossing into forbidden territorial waters. Wow, these guys are good!
An elite Chinese SpecOps force, the Jiaolong Assault Team, is put ashore to save Chinese hostages but, responding to earnest pleas from civilians asking for help, works to save more whenever they can. The team is cut off from the ship but is fighting its way to a point where they can be picked up.
Meanwhile an intrepid reporter, described as Chinese-French, is working to track yellowcake stolen by the Yewaire terrorists. She is plucky, resourceful, and brave—and I missed the part where anything about her could be called French. Chinese through and through, she eventually meets up with the rescue team and helps in their fight back to safety.
The members of the SpecOps team are an amalgam of familiar characters—the haughty sniper, the worried commander, and a very bad-ass female, complete with shaved head in the style of "GI Jane." They use an impressive array of handy high-tech gadgets—including a jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle—to penetrate the rebel-held city, only to find themselves hemmed in by ever-growing swarms of terrorists determined to stop them at any cost.
At this point I have to say it was somewhat refreshing to hear the terrorists yelling, “get the Chinese!” For a change, they were not after Americans.
Meanwhile, the frigate is now tied up at the city’s port, and the battle is directed from the ship’s combat information center — although the movie set is far larger than the ship’s space. At one point, the terrorists launch a major rocket attack on the Linyi. Fortunately for the Chinese, the ship’s close-in weapon system works perfectly, wiping out all the incoming projectiles in one burst. Pretty darned impressive.
Eventually, the Chinese succeed in taking the yellowcake from the terrorists. Still, despite their best efforts many of the rescued hostages do not make it, along with about half the SpecOps team. At the end, tears are shed and stirring words spoken at a memorial ceremony on the LPD’s flight deck. At this point, the screen fades to black.
But wait—don’t leave just yet. The film now looks down on a large Chinese naval fleet operating in the South China Sea. A computer-generated group of foreign ships approaches—clearly U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyers. A voice comes over a bull horn: “Attention. This is the Chinese Navy. Turn around. This is Chinese water.”
This non-sequitur close has next-to-nothing to do with the plot and is tagged on as blatant messaging.
Of course, the entire movie is messaging — very much in the same vein U.S. movies have used for decades. But this is something new, as the Chinese Navy takes over the role of the Americans.
Note: "Operation Red Sea" is in Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles.
Mr. Cavas was the naval warfare correspondent for Defense News from 2004 to 2017 and is a former managing editor of Navy Times . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.