AP — The daring story of how thousands of beleaguered Ethiopian Jews stranded in refugee camps in Sudan were bravely smuggled to safety in Israel in the 1980s needs little extra drama. Tell that to Netflix.
The streamer’s “The Red Sea Diving Resort” is terribly overcooked, turning the real-life drama into a light caper like “Ocean’s 11,” adding cartoonish dialogue from hack superhero films and slathering the whole mess in white savior complex.
First, some background: To rescue Ethiopian Jews in inhospitable Sudan, Israeli secret service agents had the audacious plan of running an entire fake luxury beach resort as a front. Real tourists came and did yoga on the beach while the agents at night drove the Ethiopians from camps, ferried them onto dinghies and then to rescue boats, all under the noses of the Sudanese. Thrilling stuff, right?
Apparently not for writer and director Gideon Raff, who thought he needed to add cinematic meth to the story. He had a chance to make an African “Argo” and instead made an exploitative mess that mixes light Duran Duran-driven montages with scenes in which dozens of innocents are executed with bullets to the back of their heads.
A large part of the problem is the casting of Chris Evans as the leader of the Israeli spy ring that set up the hotel. He is most known for playing Captain America and seems not to have put aside his shield for this film.
The superhero clichés abound: “What we do is dangerous. People get hurt sometimes,” Evans says at one point. A frightened black boy clings to Evans, who later paternalistically wipes away the boy’s tears. Evans carries refugees to safety like a white, muscular god, often shirtless. “You leave no one behind,” he thunders.
Evans plays Ari Levinson, a maverick Mossad agent who obsessively does pullups everywhere and storms into danger like an avenging angel. His impulse to save strangers has cost him dearly — his wife and child have left him — but he won’t bend.
“If we don’t do something, no one will,” he says in righteous anger.
Once he comes across an abandoned resort on Sudan’s Red Sea cost and convinces the Israeli government to fund his operation, Levinson assembles his five-person misfit team one by one like a heist movie (“I need you on this one,” he says to one. “I can’t do it without you”). The risks to the team are obvious: “If this goes wrong, you’ll all be hanged by cranes in Khartoum,” they are told.
Though we see hundred of Ethiopians, they are usually portrayed as clumps of frightened, whimpering creatures, huddled or running in wordless desperation, herded by our white Mossad agents. Only one Ethiopian has a name: Kabede, their leader, who is played by Michael Kenneth Williams, wasting his talents in this stock noble character with halting English.
Others who see their acting skills squandered include Greg Kinnear and Ben Kingsley, who is often shown pacing nervously around a situation room or screaming “Well done, chaps!” And Alessandro Nivola, who plays one of the Mossad agents, delivers an achingly nuanced character, easily out-acting Captain America and making viewers wonder why he wasn’t cast as Levinson.
Raff has a tendency to wrap things up — even obvious things — in a bow. “Our fake hotel just became a real one,” Levinson says after real tourists unknowingly check in. (Yes, we got that.) When the first big group of Ethiopians are smuggled to safety, the agents rejoice by quoting the Talmud: “‘Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.’ We just saved 174.” (Yes, we just saw that, good for you.)
One thing we don’t need to see more of is that traditional baddie who too frequently shows up in cheesy films like this — the venal, cigar-smoking, crazy eyed, sexually rapacious, gun-toting African army general. With the exception of Kabede, no African is portrayed as decent or honest or normal. On the other hand, the five Mossad agents have a tendency of dramatically standing in a line on the beach, surveying their good works with wind-swept satisfaction.
Raff ignores history when he constructs his elaborate, very Hollywood ending that incredulously features Americans as last-minute rescuers. The Sudanese army’s trucks are hurtling toward our heroes. The plane takes off without a second to spare.
So, of course, the evil general shoots his gun in the air out of frustration, Levinson triumphantly opens a sickly sweet drawing from his estranged daughter, and everyone exhales, safe at last thanks to this bearded white savior.
“You’re crazy, you know that?” someone tells him.
No, this filmmaking is crazy.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort,” a Netflix release, is rated TV-MA for language, brief nudity and graphic bloodshed. Running time: 129 minutes. Half star out of four.