There are many “issues” weighing down the “inspired by true events” thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” starting with its generic action pic dialogue, patronizing “white saviors in Africa” messaging and cliff-hanging story beats borrowed from films as varied as “Argo” and “Machine Gun Preacher.”
But the timing of it was what first struck me as odd, on seeing the first trailers to this Netflix release. Why are we seeing a film that celebrates Israeli tolerance and triumphalism, and Israeli-American ties, right now?
It’s very existence raises those endless “Raid on Entebbe” remakes invite. Who is behind it and what do they want American viewers to take from it, politically?
Just answered my own question, so I’ll move on to talk more directly about “Captain America Saves Ethiopian Jews” as that was almost certainly the film’s working title.
Chris Evans is the sometimes-shirtless dreamboat Mossad agent Ari Levenson, raised in America, moved to Israel to defend “my people,” a man devoted to a mission that his government and his bosses only reluctantly support — saving the African Jews of Ethiopia from persecution and slaughter in the civil war that led to Africa’s first great modern humanitarian crisis.
Levinson is involved at the very beginning of “Operation Brother,” in 1979, aided by an Ethiopian Jew (Kenneth Michael Williams) in smuggling hundreds of this impoverished corner of international Jewry out of Ethiopia, into Sudan and from there into Israel.
Sudan is on the verge of civil war itself, so the game is basically up. It is for Ari’s medico sidekick, Sammy (Alessandro Nivola), who gives the obligatory “I’m done” speech a little pathos, calling Ari “a lucky man.”
“When the luck runs out, you’ve got to have a plan. You never have one.”
Ari is that “leave no one behind” hero, always reaching for one last kid, whom he boosts on his broad shoulders for every river crossing.
Their boss (Ben Kingsley) is tired of “this job (that) pays in migraines.” He’s shutting it all down. Then Ari has a cunning plan.
There’s this long-abandoned Sudanese diving resort hotel. They could lease it for a song, use it as a coastal cover to smuggling Jews out by sea. Ingenious.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort” is born, with Ari flying to Belize to track down an agent and expert diver, Amsterdam to round up a sniper, and Pan Am to pick up a stewardess (Haley Bennett) who kicks ass and keeps an eye out on passengers who are problems for Mother Israel.
Most of the characters are seriously shortchanged, most of the logistics are skimmed over, odd for a film with a two hour-plus running time. The resort’s a wreck, the bribes that get it open mean the government is too-quick to send adventure toursts (Germans) there, before the water is running and the roof is fixed.
The Israelis see the irony of “Nazis” providing cover for them.
But you’ve got to get good word of mouth for the cover story to work, so let’s go diving! Hire some locals to cook and fish, and draw lots for who has to teach Jazzercise and tai chi.
Evans has a gift for giving a double-take or a cute line a flippant turn, but this script is too immersed in cliches to give him many chances at those.
His best moment might be explaining to his estranged little girl the story of Solomon and Sheba, noting that’s why “part of our family is in Africa (the Ethiopian Jews).”
Kingsley is all dire warnings that “if this goes wrong, you’ll all be hanging from cranes in Khartoum.”
Greg Kinnear shows up as the local CIA agent, only half-wise to what they’re up to, leading to promising scenes where the two spies get all cagey with one another.
Evans and Kinnear put these over with charisma, because the damned script by writer-director Gideon Raff never gives them chewy lines to play.
Yes, we get that Talmudic quote about “who saves one life saves the world entire,” again.
The tone is never too light, and the action beats are servicable. You just have to get over the fact patronizing nature of what we’re seeing, the way the Africans are shoved into the background.
And the whole affair is so rushed and half-assed — they have Duran Duran songs on the soundtrack, years before the band released its first LP — that it brings one right back to that opening question.
Why rush this out now? Who stands to gain? What political game is being played by serving up Israeli agitprop in the summer of 2019?
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, bloody violence, nudity, profanity
Cast: Chris Evans, Kenneth Michael Williams, Alessandro Nivola, Haley Bennett
Credits: Written and directed by Gideon Raff. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:10