Indicative of its overall headlong hurry, The Red Sea Diving Resort opens with establishing text so expeditious there’s barely time to read it.
Ravaged by civil war from 1974 to 1991, Ethiopian people resigned themselves to lives of displacement, disfigurement and disappearance. “But we alone are getting help,” intones Kebede Bimro (Michael Kenneth Williams) in a voiceover that sets up the early 1980s story of Mossad agents taking it upon themselves to extract Ethiopian Jews with passage to Israel.
Kebede is the agents’ advance man, rounding up refugees whom Ari Levinson (Chris Evans) and Sonny Navon (Alessandro Nivola) then try to deliver from evil. When he was a boy, Ari’s mother abandoned him so he could be saved. Now that he’s an adult with a majestic beard, cut bod and Keanu hair, Ari don’t play that, risking a prologue mission to save one wandering boy.
“You are crazy,” Kebede tells Ari once they’re in the clear. “We leave no one behind,” Ari replies, in an exchange on which there’s a oh-so-thin variant every 10 minutes in writer-director Gideon Raff’s historical thriller that suggests maybe you can spell “archetype” without “arc.”
Indeed, the handsomely hirsute Evans takes the lead in Raff’s film, which should satisfy those who felt deprived of dialogue during Evans’ grief-bearded phase as Captain America in the MCU. Or those who found Schindler’s List lacking montages set to Duran Duran in which the hero shows off his fitness; between pushups in a truck bed, pullups in a jail cell and beach jogging, Evans flaunts his Disney-funded physique here more than he did in any Avengers film. (Evans will be fine post-MCU, but he can certainly do better than such Munich cosplay as this.)
Like Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece, Red Sea co-stars Ben Kingsley — only here he’s a sort of Nick Fury to Evans’ Captain Judaica, pronouncing “status” like “stay-tus” to make this seem high-minded. And yes, Red Sea even has its own scene in which someone quotes the Talmudic wisdom that he who saves one life saves the world entire. The only difference? Rather than self-flagellant reflection on those they couldn’t save, these folks high-five one mission’s tally of 174.
Over time, Ari’s scattershot, scrappy plans place too much stress on the Mossad’s resources as well as Sonny, a doctor who decides he can do more good in a clinic. Besides, Menachem Begin’s government has de-prioritized the reversal of diaspora. But Ari just can’t let go, even if it means abandoning his family, and hatches a plan involving the titular diving resort.
Built by Italian entrepreneurs on the Sudanese coast years ago, the resort was abandoned as a casualty of that nation’s own burgeoning political conflict. Greased by enough graft, Ari reckons, the Sudanese government would happily lease it to a shell corporation and encourage tourism. With its easy water access and plentiful housing, Ari could shelter refugees there — guided by Kebede across the Ethiopian border — then send them off with Israeli commandos from the shore under the cover of night.
Once the government buys into Ari’s idea, and the abandoned resort, he assembles his team in a scene that feels bizarrely like a Fast & Furious knockoff. And that’s before composer Mychael Danna’s choice of score in this moment, which sounds like a cross between what accompanied Thor and Hulk’s adventures on Sakaar and a very bad ’80s porno. There’s Haley Bennett manhandling a handsy man and fully leaning into her Jennifer Lawrence resemblance. There’s Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones) flashing his butt on the beach. There’s Williams as the only black character of any substance and even then largely expository.
And there’s Nivola as Sonny, back in the fold as Ari’s voice of reason. In a film with so very many individuals, Sonny is the closest thing to an actual character. Too bad all of Nivola’s work culminates in a scene so unintentionally similar to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s self-deprecatory meltdown in Boogie Nights that you’ll have no choice but to laugh. Maybe that’s the reason Raff awkwardly cuts away from the action in the middle of the moment.
Raff is the creator of Prisoners of War, an acclaimed Israeli TV drama that inspired the equally heralded Homeland stateside. He certainly knows his way around the tension and snap of erupting violence, and this is an inspired idea for a feature film. But Red Sea never rises above the seen-it-before shapelessness of Beirut (whose weary Jon Hamm performance would be a blessing here) or 7 Days in Entebbe (starring Evans’ one-time MCU enemy, Daniel Bruhl).
Ultimately, Raff’s script reckons neither with its characters’ hinted-at crises of faith nor the geopolitical domino effect of their actions — which spark executions in neighborhoods, Jewish or otherwise, at the hands of warlords upset at a dwindling pool of people to exploit. Strangely, Red Sea is at its liveliest, and most natural, whenever the Mossad team has to contend with the ruse of actually running a resort for German tourists on dusty buses from Khartoum. It’s like watching a cruise ship entertainment director making do on a humanitarian marine vessel.
Filmed two years ago, The Red Sea Diving Resort languished on a shelf until a scoop-up from Netflix — on whose streaming service the film is now available. Like the forged passports its characters throw together, it’s passable on cursory inspection but messy under a magnifying glass.