The lazy, predictable, and uninspired espionage thriller The Red Sea Diving Resort gets off to a start so horrifically flat and laughably laboured that most savvy moviegoers (meaning anyone who knows how a story should be told, framed, or executed) would probably shut it off within the first ten minutes. While writer-director Gideon Raff – who’s taking some obvious and significant liberties with the real life crisis and genocide his movie is based on – never redeems the unbearable clunkiness and unearned tension of the film’s start, it does help to lower expectations accordingly for anyone willing to stick around. The Red Sea Diving Resort never becomes a good movie or even that focused or engaging of one, but it does its best to shamelessly rip off a much better directed and written motion picture. Raff has certainly studied what elements go into making a good movie, even if he seems to have little clue how to make one.
The Red Sea Diving Resort spans the late 1970s and early 80s and surrounds an Israeli backed campaign to save thousands of Ethiopian Jews from their country’s violent Civil War. It’s a nearly impossible and time consuming mission that requires Mossad members to secretly and stealthily sneak the refugees out of their home country and through Sudan, which was implementing stricter Sharia laws that didn’t look kindly upon refugees, women, or Jews. The man tasked with leading the often frustrating and slow moving operation is Ari Levinson, played by Chris Evans in his first notable post-Marvel role. Levinson has been twice fired by his boss (Ben Kingsley), and he’s about to be pulled off his assignment for the final time by governmental higher-ups. Having seen first hand the desperation faced by the Ethiopian Jews, Levinson comes up with a last ditch plan to get the refugees out of there. His idea: lease a decaying, unused resort property along the Red Sea coastline from the Sudanese government as a cover operation to explain why a bunch of foreign outsiders need to stay in the country for so long; using the time they’ve bought to continue bringing small batches of refugees out of the country across various spaced out missions. If Ari and his team can get the refugees through the Muslim stronghold to the coastline, it’s only a three day trip by boat to Sinai and safety. Almost immediately, however, their plans are nearly thwarted by the arrival of foreign tourists, who were sent to the fake resort by government officials who took the operation at face value. If they don’t keep up appearances, the team and the people they’re trying to save could be in grave danger.
The Red Sea Diving Resort wants to be Argo 2.0, right down to the positively Affleck-ian appearance and cadence of Evans’ clearly-not-Israeli main character. A bunch of spies and helpers do their best to pretend they’re something they aren’t in a bid to exfiltrate people in mortal danger. Raff isn’t close to being as skilled of a director or writer, but he’s clearly a fan of how the Iran hostage crisis was resolved in Affleck’s Oscar winner right down to the “will the plane be able to take off from the tarmac?” climax. The beats are virtually the same across the board, but The Red Sea Diving Resort forgets pretty much everything that made Argo such a riveting and entertaining thriller. Raff’s film flat out refuses to be interesting on its own terms.
The film opens with Ari’s Ethiopian pointman, Kabede Bimro (Michael Kenneth Williams), narrating footage of an exfiltration that nearly goes awry. Over chaotic images that builds to a young child nearly getting shot point blank in the head, Kabede talks endlessly about the suffering faced by Ethiopian Jews and the 2,000 year struggle of his people to return to their homeland. There’s plenty of derring-do to be performed and a fair number of close calls, but none of them are exciting because the viewer knows nothing about these people outside of their pain. Raff’s idea of how to tell a story like this is to suggest that bad situations need no explanation, and while genocide is certainly a just cause to save as many lives as possible, the writer-director never adequately gives a voice to the very people the heroes are trying to save. Williams does what he can to explain things with a certain degree of gravitas, but really, the Ethiopians are nothing more than cannon fodder to Raff; just another commodity that needs to be saved and preserved by the might of the Mossad. We know nothing about the conditions these people are living under, all of the countless near misses they face whenever Ari isn’t around, or the volatile political and social situations in Ethiopia or Sudan. We just know that some really bad people want to kill the good ones, and without that added layer of depth, The Red Sea Diving Resort languishes in baseline mediocrity when it could’ve been poignant and heart-wrenching.
Hearing The Red Sea Diving Resort from the perspective of Kabede and those he swore to protect would be vastly preferable to the Argo-light antics Raff has in store, and there would assuredly be more suspense and uncertainty. Scenes where Ari tries to sell his plan to the top brass lead into a montage where the spy puts together his hand-picked team of operatives. There’s a scene where Ari barks at his team members about the importance of keeping their cover identities straight. The first attempted exfiltration from the resort doesn’t go according to plan, raising suspicion from the local warlords. They settle into a groove and try to balance the day-to-day running of a fake tourist trap with their mission, via another montage, this one set to “Hungry Like the Wolf.” There’s an American CIA attaché (Greg Kinnear) who wants the Israelis gone almost as much as he wants the Islamic regime to fall. If it ever happened in a plot where spies have to keep up an act for the sake of the mission, you’ll find it in The Red Sea Diving Resort with no deviation, intentiveness, or ingenuity. It’s all face-value heroism that should feel more vital and captivating instead of bland and perfunctory.
Other than dreadfully underutilized Williams, the only major bright spots to be found here come from some of the character actors pegged to play members of Ari’s team. Haley Bennett has the only openly fun role as a tough, physically impressive woman who was previously moonlighting as an airline stewardess. Michiel Huisman provides some light comedic relief as the resort’s “diving expert.” Alessandro Nivola steals the entire show out from underneath Evans as the team’s doctor and resident skeptic. Not only does Nivola get the only character who feels fully realized and detailed, but he’s also the only person capable of pointing out to Ari that the entire plan is ludicrous and unsustainable. It’s a great performance, but Nivola’s character also gets to voice what a lot of viewers will undoubtedly be thinking as The Red Sea Diving Resort grows increasingly predictable.
And there’s no skirting around the issue that Evans is 1,010% wrong for the role of Ari. Evans, who sounds here like he couldn’t be from anywhere in the world other than Massachusetts and looks like he’s competing in a Tony Mendez look-alike contest, is playing the exact same kind of vaguely smarmy and smart-assed role that he was playing before he donned the Captain America tights, mask, and shield. There have always been flashes that Evans can be a capable and intriguing leading man (Snowpiercer, Puncture), but The Red Sea Diving Resort finds the actor leaning hard into bad, old habits. He’s a pretty, smug, and bland hero, made worse by the fact that Raff’s script paints Ari in a rather incompetent light. Some of the acts attempted by Ari and his team are MacGruber levels of ludicrous, and Evans can’t do anything more than shrug off the character’s shortcomings with a smile and a quip. I began to wonder through Evans’ performance if some of The Red Sea Diving Resort was meant to be funny on purpose or if the actor saw something in the material that no one else saw. It’s a strange choice of leading man for such a story, and he seems to have been hired not because he can credibly act like a Mossad agent, but rather because if you squint hard enough, he kinda looks like a different actor from the state of Massachusetts who starred in something similar.
(It should also be noted that Evans isn’t even attempting to come up with an accent for his character, which becomes even more hilarious when the cover stories he gives to his co-workers requires all of them to put on silly sounding accents. Bennett has to sound like a German, and Nivola has to sound Australian, but Evans still gets to sound like himself. None of the other actors were doing accents, either, when the audience first sees them, but there’s something hilarious about watching a leading actor who isn’t doing an accent in the first place is barking orders at everyone to try harder. Ultimately, none of this matters, as these fake accents are barely ever heard again outside of the scene where the cover stories are fleshed out, meaning that entire sequence, this paragraph, and the majority of The Red Sea Diving Resort is a complete waste of time.)
The bizarre choices don’t end with Evans’ casting in the lead and the script’s shocking ability to make a reality based life and death situation as thrilling as a sleeping pill with a chamomile chaser. The Red Sea Diving Resort looks like it was blocked and framed by graduates of the “Tom Hooper School of Needless Negative Space,” the kind of film that would rather spend half of all its frames looking at walls, patches of grass, or antique chairs rather than making sure all of the the characters in a scene or anything visually interesting can be seen. The editing is amateurish at best, and sometimes silly at worst (dig those crazy ventian-blind style wipes!). The score from Mychael Danna – the absolute worst of his career – can’t decide if it wants to rip off the Tangerine Dream score from Sorcerer or go for something folksier. Even the font used to establish various times and places looks more at home in a sci-fi thriller about killer aliens and/or robots than it does in a serious ripped-from-the-headlines spy thriller.
And despite how cathartic it can be to take a self-serious and unsuccessful potboiler down a peg or two, ragging on The Red Sea Diving Resort brings me no joy. The film ends (before the requisite showing of archival footage of how things really went down over the credits) with an honest, earnest, and obvious plea to viewers to help their fellow humans during the largest worldwide refugee crises in history. I can get behind that, and it’s important to remember in our apathetic times (although I’m sure Palestinian viewers will have a lot to say about a film glamorizing the Mossad ending in such a fashion). It would be a more potent message if the film built around it was considerably better than this.
The Red Sea Diving Resort is available to stream on Netflix starting on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.
Check out the trailer for The Red Sea Diving Resort:
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