In the early 1980s, a clandestine unit of Mossad agents bought and reopened a deserted beach resort on the shores of war-torn Sudan, and used it as a cover through which to smuggle thousands of persecuted Ethiopian Jews to the safety of Jerusalem. When this story was declassified a few years ago, it made for a remarkable new chapter in the history of the Jewish diaspora — one that hinges on ancient Hebraic themes of exile, the divine value of a single human life, and the pursuit of a promised land where all of God’s people might live in peace.
Now that it’s been adapted to the screen as a generic Netflix thriller that emphasizes Israeli heroism over Ethiopian suffering (not to mention the bravery required for them to leave their homes and reach the coast), this story only makes for a dull footnote to the history of white savior movies.
As an addition to the cinematic legacy of Chris Evans’ facial hair, however, “The Red Sea Diving Resort” is nothing short of essential. Effectively playing Captain Israel, the Marvel alum stars as Ari Levinson, a scruffy Mossad agent who hatches the big idea in the span of a single cut. Ari is more impulsive than Steve Rogers ever was, but he’s still got the soul of a superhero; a high-octane prologue, in which the fictitious spy risks his neck to save a helpless Ethiopian boy from a squad of armed militants, tells us everything there is to know about the character and the two-dimensional movie that writer-director Gideon Raff has built around him.
Ari is also more Jewish than Chris Evans has ever been, but the fact that his well-oiled team (which also includes Haley Bennett, Alessandro Nivola, and Michiel Huisman) can pass for a group of sexy goyim is something of a plot point, as no one wants to raise the suspicions of the Sudanese military. Especially not those of the military’s homicidal figurehead (“Gotham” actor Chris Chalk), who gets a U.N. stipend for every refugee under his control, and likes to play his double-necked electric guitar with a giant bullet casing instead of a pick; that sole grace note, which is all that separates the character from his henchmen, is struck more than 90 minutes into the film.
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Even less detail is afforded to Kabede Bimro, a crude composite of the Ethiopian Jews who parted the waters and led their people towards salvation. Played by Michael K. Williams in a performance that screams “I could have done something with this if the role were more than just a broad stand-in for an entire tribe,” Kabede is barely afforded five minutes of screen time, and spends most of them reminding us that “The Red Sea Diving Resort” is erasing him from his own story.
It’s a glaring problem that Raff goes out of his way to emphasize at every opportunity, beginning with Kabede’s awed opening voiceover about “Men who do not look like us, but share our same history, our same dream, our same hope.” Moments later, Kabede is forced to hand the baton to Ari, who becomes our guiding voice until the very end, when Kabede returns to summarize all that we’ve learned about the characters’ ostensible commonalities.
And those commonalities have to remain ostensible, as the Ethiopian Jews are relegated to the distant background for most of the movie in favor of a strained friendship between Evans’ and Nivola’s characters (both actors do valiant work to make something out of nothing), a few lifeless action sequences, and a montage set to Duran Duran. That last bit is actually one of the more successful scenes in the movie, as Raff sells the inherent absurdity of his premise far better than he does its suspense and consequences. There’s something undeniably amusing about these spies having to play “Baywatch” when groups of German(!) tourists show up expecting to enjoy a legitimate beach resort, and every member of the film’s cast wields enough rakish charm to make this element work. Bennett’s character has more headlocks than she does lines of dialogue, but the actress sells them with the conviction of someone who desperately hopes her director will be able to split the difference between a daytime action soap and a drama about genocide. He can’t.
And he can’t quite thread the needle between “Argo” and “Munich” (two reference points so obvious they might have been emblazoned onto the first page of the screenplay), nor connect the struggle of the Ethiopian Jews to the refugee crises that ring the world today. The “we’re all refugees” ethos of Raff’s script might speak to several millennia of Hebrew searching — and it certainly offers a clean rebuttal to the latent racism of the way that some of Ari’s superiors (one of whom is a phoned in Ben Kingsley) emphasize the first word of the phrase “black Jews” — but it fails to account for the dehumanizing pain of wandering in the desert.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort” is a dull and derivative film that’s too in love with its heroes to bother with its victims. The Talmud says that “He who saves one life saves the world entire,” though when Nivola repeats that here, it just like he’s quoting “Schindler’s List.” These Mossad agents saved thousands of lives, but this movie only leaves you feeling like they managed to save a Club Med.
“The Red Sea Diving Resort” will be available to stream on Netflix starting July 31.