You sometimes have to wonder if spy agencies don’t design operations with film deals in mind. That surely must have been the case with the Israeli Mossad’s daring scheme to smuggle Ethiopian Jews out of a Sudanese refugee camp, which serves as the inspiration for Gideon Raff’s Netflix feature. If the events depicted in The Red Sea Diving Resort hadn’t actually (sort of) happened, the pic would be dismissed as sheer fantasy.
Not that the plot elements in the 1980-set film aren’t fantastical. Chris Evans transitions from playing Captain America to a Mossad agent for the starring role, a piece of casting which on the surface seems unlikely given his all-American looks but actually works in the story’s context. As the story begins, his character, Ari Levinson (a composite, as are most of the others shown), is working with a rebel leader, Kabede (Michael K. Williams, The Wire), to smuggle oppressed Ethiopian Jews out of the country, although the farthest they’re able to get them is a Sudanese camp.
Ari comes up with an unlikely idea involving the Mossad surreptitiously leasing an abandoned seaside hotel and using it as a base camp for nighttime missions raiding the camp and escorting the Ethiopians to the shore where they can be picked up by waiting Israeli ships. He presents the idea to his supervisor (Ben Kingsley, one of the few actors on the planet fully capable of being fully convincing as either a notorious Nazi or an Israel intelligence officer), who not surprisingly reacts with skepticism. Even more dubious is the spy agency’s chief (Mark Ivanir), whose main role in the story seems to be fulminating in blustery fashion, both before and after he okays the risky operation.
Cue the inevitable “assembling the team” sequence, presented here in such lighthearted fashion that you begin wondering whether the mission involves rescuing desperate refugees or robbing a Las Vegas casino. The recruits are an internationally diverse lot, including flight attendant Rachel (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train), whose mastery of hand-to-combat is demonstrated when she takes down a lecherous co-worker; medical doctor Sammy (Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense), who chafes at Ari’s impulsive risk-taking); diving expert Jake (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), a ladies man who rocks a banana hammock; and sharpshooter Max (Alex Hassell, currently seen as Translucent on Amazon’s The Boys).
Each member of the team is assigned a new identity, with one designated as being Maltese, because, as Ari explains, “No one knows what language people in Malta speak.”
When a group of German tourists accidentally arrive at the resort and expect to be checked in, the team is forced to improvise. But Ari quickly realizes that they’ve stumbled on the perfect cover, using the actual guests to disguise the team’s risky activities. Director-screenwriter Raff (no stranger to the thematic terrain, being the creator of Prisoners of War, the Israel series later adapted into Showtime’s Homeland) takes advantage of the situation’s absurdity by delivering a cheeky montage, accompanied by Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” contrasting the agents’ cheesy resort hosting duties with their nighttime espionage.
The frequent shifting in tone isn’t always to the film’s advantage. The comic moments often mesh uneasily with the more conventional suspenseful passages, many involving the frequent visits to the resort by a suspicious Sudanese colonel (a genuinely menacing Chris Chalk, Gotham) who knows that something fishy is going on but can’t prove it.
But the movie, which will inevitably spur comparisons to such similar efforts as Argo, works well enough on its own terms, with Mychael Danna’s synthesizer-heavy score providing a suitably retro vibe. It would have certainly proved beneficial if rebel leader Kabede had received greater emphasis; although the Ethiopian character introduces the story via a voiceover, he remains sadly underutilized throughout. The pacing, too, is problematic, with too many talky digressive scenes (some involving a cynical CIA agent, well played by Greg Kinnear) sapping the overlong film of narrative momentum.
Evans plays hunky and sincere as effectively here as he does in the MCU, showing off his chiseled physique in many shirtless scenes. But he’s upstaged by several of the supporting players whose characters are more colorful, especially Huisman as the equally ripped Jake and Bennett as the agent equally versed in martial arts and aerobics instruction.
As if to forestall any viewer skepticism, the end credits feature footage of the real-life figures involved in the outlandish events. It was somehow comforting to see that the banana-hammock bathing suit wasn’t a cinematic invention.
Production companies: Bron Studios, EMAJ, G. Raff, in association with Creative Wealth Media
Cast: Chris Evans, Haley Bennett, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michiel Huisman, Alex Hassell, Mark Ivanir, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley
Director-screenwriter: Gideon Raff
Producers: Alexandra Milchan, Gideon Raff, Aaron L. Gilbert
Executive producers: Jason Cloth, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Alex Lebovici, Andrew Pollack, Steve Ponce, Steven Thibault, Philip Waley
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer
Production designer: Jeff Mann
Editor: Tim Squyres
Composer: Mychael Danna
Costume designers: Neil McClean, Ruth Myers