Operation Mekong

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/05/16 15:45:59

"Old-school, no-fooling around, hard-R violence."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

If you are looking for some quality violence out of a movie - the sort where trying to downplay what you're seeing by just calling it "action" seems more dishonest than admitting that you sometimes enjoy watching brute force is distasteful - "Operation Mekong" delivers without much messing around. It's not pretty, it's not particularly interested in using this to make a point about moral gray areas, it's not a character study of a sometimes-violent person. It's a movie about hunting and killing drug lords, and it appeals to the part of the brain that enjoys that quite well.

It springs from an actual incident that took place in October 2011, when the crew of a Chinese vessel traveling down the Mekong River was massacred in the Golden Triangle - an area at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos almost entirely controlled by pirates and narcotics suppliers, called "Hell's Gate to the South" despite being a vital waterway. The incident leads to China negotiating a more direct role in policing the region, dispatching Yunnan Narcotics Captain Gao Guang (Zhang Han-yu) to take part in a joint task force, getting intel from Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has been operating undercover as "Qifu" for several years. Gao's aim is to track down Naw Khar (Pawarith Monkolpisit) and make sure he faces justice in China rather than a local jurisdiction. They have a Chinese SWAT team to aid them, but the fact that Khar's associate Jitpong (Ken Lo) is a fugitive with whom Xinwu has a history could throw a major spanner into the works.

Filmmaker Dante Lam doesn't spend a lot of time on China pushing for and receiving expanded police powers in the region, but enough for it to be noteworthy, in part because it's a reflection on the film's righteous and ruthless point of view - it opens with narration of how drugs are a blight on society while a beautiful young woman whose addiction seems to have drained her empty shoots up, and makes sure to position Naw Khar as not just a criminal, but a warlord who trains child soldiers and has practically enslaved the local population. It is, then, something of a fusion of America's 1950s law-and-order B-movies and Reagan-era action flicks, taking great pains to confer the legitimacy of the former on the rogue/clandestine operations of the latter, some potentially eyebrow-raising propaganda.

It doesn't seem that way once Gao gets to Thailand, because Lam makes an entertaining movie out of material that could have been stiff, moralistic, and/or sadistic. He calls back to that opening scene with the girl to make it part of the story, and (along with his co-writers) displays a sly sense of humor that quietly move within sight of parody but not get particularly close, whether it's letting the audience enjoy the absurdity of a warlord running around in camo while caring a gold-plated Kalashnikov, or finding ways for the SWAT team's canine member Bingo to be even more of a super-dog. Bingo, incidentally, is the only member of the squad whose code name in the English subtitles does not come from Greek mythology, and while I don't know whether it was the original dialogue or the subs that have someone telling "Icarus" not to burn himself during a meal, it does create an interesting meta-level where one wonders how he's going to die horribly (and if this is an English-only thing, that's okay, because judging by audience reaction, there are a number of Mandarin jokes and pop-culture references that don't translate at all).

There is certainly opportunity for Icarus or anybody else to check out in spectacular fashion - once the team starts fighting in earnest, Lam stacks one action sequence on top of another at a relentless pace. There are a few moments when things get out of hand - somehow, after two cars catch some air while speeding over uneven ground, one pulls ahead and rotates ninety degrees so it can be broadsided mid-cut, and the finale has way too many people from three factions wearing similar camouflage in the forest. But at the peak, Lam jumps from a tense extraction to a huge shopping-center shootout to a tense bombing without much pause, and though it's the volume of smashing and shooting things up that makes the first impression (it has the feel of a movie where the producers not only accept that it won't get a rating that lets kids in, but have been told that they won't get a refund on any squibs, explosives, or stunt cars returned in good condition), they're all cannily executed enough that one can follow all the characters, nothing drags on long enough to start feeling ugly, and there's room for little surprises amid the efficient, capable soldiers doing their job.

It is a bit impersonal at times; with a likely mandate to show the Chinese police forces as dedicated and incorruptible, it's quite likely that Pawarith Monkolpisit and the actors playing Naw Khar's subordinates and rivals had the most fun, whether doing the sort of rant that comes from snorting a heaping pile of cocaine or being some sort of weasel. Still, the two leads complement each other well, with Zhang Han-yu playing things tough but cool as Gao and Eddie Peng disarming in the rare moments when he's not in disguise and playing the film's darker, more morally ambiguous moments quite well.

It's a bit of a surprise that the movie actually has moments that you could call morally ambiguous, although Lam does not exactly dwell on them for any longer than he must acknowledge personal revenge as less than ideal before getting back to the business of fighting the war on drugs with all the firepower he can muster. "Operation Mekong" is not particularly subtle, but once one acknowledges that and enjoys it for what it does well, it does satisfy the id for a couple of hours.

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