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Operation Chromite
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by Jay Seaver

"Tries for global appeal, falls short."
2 stars

It's no secret that South Korean entertainment companies have been looking to access the American market directly the same way that China and India do, even if they are more trying to translate their industry's great reputation into an audience the size that they feel it deserves than serve a large expatriate and emigrant population. Inserting a familiar western face into a movie is one way to get it a higher American profile, although audiences going to "Operation Chromite" under the impression that it stars Liam Neeson will likely be disappointed, though in a different way than folks looking for a truly great Korean War movie.

"Operation Chromite" was the name that American General Douglas MacArthur (Neeson) gave to the 15 September 1950 invasion of occupied South Korean at Incheon, a daring operation given one-in-five-thousand odds to succeed given the narrow harbor filled with mines, massive swells, and steep cliffs to be overcome. That's why the movie opens a couple weeks earlier, with Operation X-Ray, in which Lieutenant Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae) leads a group of eight ROK soldiers into the occupied city disguised as North Korean inspectors, their mission to discover the location for the mines and capture a crucially-placed lighthouse. Unfortunately for them, their zeal to accomplish this quickly has Colonel Lim Gye-jin (Lee Beom-soo) smelling a rat.

Though the film opens with a title card stating that it was based upon actual events, as near as I can tell that refers to the Incheon invasion itself, with the bulk of the film fictional (and the "Trudy Jackson" team never mentioned). War movies that take that tack are kind of odd - it seems disrespectful to insert fictional characters into actual events as being crucial rather than focusing on the biographical or telling smaller stories that can happen in history's margins. Instead, Operation Chromite takes a setup that seemingly demands a spy story's careful maneuvering and jumps to slam-bang action very early. It's got some room to build - the climax is a going to be massive naval bombardment with thousands of soldiers making a beachhead - but feels like it's climaxing early and then struggling to get back to the same level twice before the finale, doubly hard because the film occasionally jumps over to Tokyo where MacArthur is having meetings.

The action is, at least, fairly well-done, kicking things off with an impressive jolt and doing a fair job of having violence explode practically out of nowhere later on, though director John H. Lee does well to give the lay of the land. That applies to both close-quarters combat and the larger battle scene at the end - the more chances he has to lay things out, the better the execution winds up being - although he sometimes struggles when he has to establish things on the fly. There's a chase scene with Indiana Jones ambitions, for instance, that doesn't quite handle all the moving parts so well. The scale of the actual landing is impressive, although the visual effects budget looks stretched.

The Korean cast does nice enough work, although this action-oriented film lends itself to even less subtlety than the last Korean War movie that Lee and co-writer Lee Man-hee worked on (71: Into the Fire), with a very bold line between the heroic ROK characters and the evil DPRK soldiers. Lee Jung-jae does an understated hero without seeming bland, giving some emotional weight to Hak-soo's personal story without making it overshadow the actual war. Park Chul-min is the most distinctive other member of the infiltrating group, playing a middle-aged soldier with family in the city frustrated by not being able to see them, while Kim Byung-ok and Jin Se-yun are worth watching as a man already spying for the South and his niece, a nurse tending to lean toward the North by default. Lee Beom-soo, on the other hand, dives into his villain role with glee, Lim's eyes practically twinkling as he pokes at Hak-soo's cover, playing the DPRK villain as much more his own man than the Kim Il-sung-serving drone that seems more prevalent.

And then there's Liam Neeson, who is made up well enough to pass muster as MacArthur, especially with the distinctive costuming and props, but is mostly there to be Liam Neeson and use his distinctive voice to trigger a Pavlovian response in audience members about the gravitas of the situation and film. He does this job well - when Neeson explains something, it gets absorbed - but it's a bit like seeing any early performance of a Neeson-as-MacArthur one man show. His North American co-stars are not folks possessed of the same charisma he has, never challenging him to raise his game, and his two scenes where MacArthur interacts with the main Korean characters look to be assembled with green screens and stand-ins.

It makes one wonder if Neeson were a late addition to the film to try to appeal to the world market, with the MacArthur scenes added to what was already a mostly-completed product. It would fit; there are bits that feel like repetition, especially when the time for speculations on MacArthur's motivation for committing to what seems like a long-shot plan comes. There are a lot of heavy-handed decisions, some interesting and some not, that make less difference than they might: At first it seems like Kim Il-sung will only be shown from behind, until we see his face in his second or third scene, the shift in color palettes at the end of the battle is just clear enough to work without being flagrant. There's a potentially interesting thread about where the loyalties in Incheon lie, with throwaway lines about how quickly it has shifted, or how invested anyone in a border city like this was with either North or South Korea so early in their history, but this is not that sort of war movie.

And, perhaps, expectations should be adjusted for it; it's more an action movie than any sort of thoughtful adaptation of real events, with Neeson more an upgrade on who would usually play this character in a Korean film than a draw himself. It still can't help but feel cobbled together even then, far from the war movie with Pan-Pacific appeal that the studio had hoped for.

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originally posted: 08/18/16 07:30:37
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User Comments

8/18/16 Byong Min I didn't realize they spent only $14 million for this film. I thought at least around $60~$ 5 stars
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Directed by
  John H. Lee

Written by
  Man-hee Lee
  Sean Dulake
  John H. Lee

  Jung-Jae Lee
  Liam Neeson
  Beom-su Lee
  Se-yun Jin
  Chul-min Park

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