'Operation Chromite': Film Review

Operation Chromite Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of CJ Entertainment

Operation Chromite Still - Publicity - H 2016

Patriotic to the core, despite historical distortions.

Liam Neeson stars as General Douglas MacArthur in this big-budget Korean War drama.

For those familiar with the military campaigns of the Korean War, the Battle of Incheon is remembered as a turning point in the conflict, as South Korea and UN coalition forces pushed a determined North Korean invasion back on its heels. For everyone else, there’s Operation Chromite, a heroic accounting of the incidents leading up to the Incheon campaign from the perspective of a joint South Korean-American clandestine operation that cleared the way for an amphibious assault on the port city.

The CJ Entertainment release directed by John H. Lee topped the South Korean box office over its July 29 opening weekend, perhaps as much for nationalistic reasons during a period of heightened political tensions as for any enduring enthusiasm for Liam Neeson’s appearance in another action-oriented movie, although his turn as iconic military strategist Douglas MacArthur should help grab the attention of U.S. audiences.

The year is 1950, just a few months after Northern forces backed by Russia and China have overrun most of South Korea. After a UN coalition led by the U.S. comes to the nation’s aid, Tokyo-based General MacArthur devises a secret plan to attack behind enemy lines at the port city of Incheon. The risky strategem is opposed by leaders of the other military branches, forcing MacArthur to devise a clandestine operation to gather essential information from within occupied Incheon by coordinating a weeklong South Korean spy operation known as X-Ray.

The linchpin of this top-secret incursion is Soviet-trained Captain Jang Hak-soo (Lee Jung-jae), who leads a group of eight operatives to gather military intelligence by impersonating North Korean officers and soldiers and infiltrating the enemy’s Incheon command, coordinated by Commander Lim Gye-jin (Lee Bum-soo), a protege of supreme leader Kim Il-sung. Their prime objective is determine the placement of North Korean defenses and the tactical characteristics of Incheon harbor, notorious for swift currents and major tidal surges.

Immediately suspicious of Jang’s “inspection mission,” Lim attempts to impede his comrade’s investigation and orders his staff to closely monitor the new arrivals. The U.S. command in Tokyo relays MacArthur’s orders to obtain navigation charts showing naval mine placements in the harbor and prepare a strategy to assist the coalition forces with landing an amphibious assault in a narrow two-hour window between tides. When contacts within the local underground South Korean resistance movement warn Jang that time is running out to successfully complete the mission, he pushes his group to extremes. Meanwhile in Tokyo, MacArthur prepares Operation Chromite, an invasion force of 75,000 UN troops and over 200 warships to imminently depart for the Korean Peninsula.

As is the case with many movies “inspired by true events,” it’s unlikely that the South Koreans’ investigation advanced exactly as depicted, in no small part because their tactics are so ridiculously risky that any actual mission pursuing them would probably have been quickly neutralized. Screenwriter Lee Man-hee, who worked on two of director Lee’s previous features, keeps tensions high by placing the infiltrators in almost constant jeopardy as they attempt to uncover the weaknesses in the North Korean defenses and avoid discovery.

Lee does an admirable job of coordinating dramatic developments while staging numerous shootouts and chase scenes, although large-scale CGI sequences depicting major naval deployments and troop movements aren’t always well-rendered. Similarly, substantive character development rarely advances much beyond the principal performers and frequent digressions into political proselytizing don't do much to enhance the action.

In his first South Korean feature, Neeson has the smallest of the lead roles, channeling MacArthur’s trademark bluster and bravado with sometimes cartoonish enthusiasm. Dressed in a khaki uniform and chomping on an often-unlit corncob pipe, though, he does make a passable impression as one of the nation’s most renowned military tacticians. Lee Jung-jae (Assassination) has plenty of opportunity to develop Jang’s intense persona, whether he’s focusing singlemindedly on planning undercover operations or leading his squad into firefights against the North Koreans. Lee Bum-soo’s (The Divine Move) Lim is more adept at psychological warfare, in a performance that verges on the almost amusingly villainous.  

Distributor: CJ Entertainment
Production company: Taewon Entertainment
Cast: Liam Neeson, Lee Jung-jae, Lee Bum-soo, Jin Se-yeon
Director: John H. Lee
Screenwriter: Lee Man-hee
Producers: Chung  Tae-won, Yang Chang-hoon 
Director of photography: Park Jang-hyuck
Production designer: Choi Ki-ho
Costume designer: Oh Sang-jin
Editor: Steve M. Choe, Kim Woo-hyun
Music: Lee Dong-june

Not rated, 111 minutes