Wednesday, September 13, 2017
OPERATION MEKONG (2016)
This "based on true events" Chinese action film has an oldschool energy to it befitting its relatively oldschool director, Dante Lam. He's been making movies since the 1990s, the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema, and Mekong is pretty much a Nineties action picture with a tech upgrade. The true event at the heart of the film is a 2011 massacre of two Chinese cargo ship crews by drug traffickers in the infamous "Golden Triangle" near the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Public outcry in China led to the creation of an international task force and the deployment of Chinese investigators throughout the region. The film's ensemble of heroes are too many for all of them to have distinctive personalities, but this is the sort of film that doesn't depend on character development. We know them primarily by their nicknames -- they're named after Chinese gods in the original, while the English subtitles translate those to Olympian deities, including "Panoptes" (for Argus Panoptes) for the guy who operates the drone and "Aphrodite" for the team's only woman. That seems a bad fit because the film admirably refrains from sexualizing her in any way; "Athena" might have been a better fit. And there's a dog who gets perhaps the film's most startling or simply implausible moment. Used as a landmine detector, the animal dashes through a minefield and is simply too fast to be caught in the explosions he triggers. After that the poor creature gets shot -- the film makes sure to show us the mortal wound -- and its death proves one of Mekong's most sentimental scenes. Like some Asian films, it has a sometimes uncomfortable mix of mawkishness and brutality that's probably genuinely foreign to many American viewers. The head drug lord has a cohort of child soldiers, high on his supply and already hopelessly vicious. We're introduced to them during a casual game of Russian roulette, and we see one of them lose. Later, one of them carries out a suicide bombing. Still another has to be shot in the back by one of our heroes to keep him from slaughtering people during one of the film's big action scenes. This element of the story will no doubt make some U.S. viewers squeamish, as violence against children in any context is still somewhat taboo here, but it's definitely effective in putting the film's villains over as amoral monsters. Despite those downer moments, Mekong is a giddy spree of mayhem, the controversial aspects of which -- the Thai government is touchy about the role of its nationals in the whole business -- won't matter to viewers outside Southeast Asia. The action scenes, if not outstanding, are at least energetic, especially one sequence that climaxes with a car chase inside a shopping mall. For those unlikely to shudder at its treatment of children, Mekong ought to be lightweight fun as well as an interesting exception to the CGI-driven action fantasies we usually get from China.